Defining documentary photography is like trying to capture a bird’s free flight by trapping it inside a cage. Documentary photography is, in its essence, the mirror image of life itself.
It’s as diverse as the world it seeks to expresses.
So, buckle up, or better yet – jump right in to this unique adventure that you won’t find in any of the tedious, dull treaties on the science of art. Together, we will soar high, exploring the world through the lens of documentary photography! Let’s drink straight from the fountain and dive into life’s greatest depths.
Both the world and documentary photography have different colors. Those colors hold the key to the world’s beauty, but its contrasts can only be perceived by the black-and-white developing of real life that only photography has the power to convey.
So, get ready for this journey, because it’s not going to be short. Save this page and come back to it whenever you find time for the world. It’ll be expecting you.
So, What Is Documentary Photography?
Let’s make one thing clear – nobody has ever managed to trap the bird into a cage; that is, nobody has ever been able to put documentary photography in a fixed frame. So, let’s imagine we’re the ones taking a free flight along with that bird, re-discovering the world as we go.
During the course of our journey, we’ll find out that not only does documentary photography include various photography genres (like street and portrait photography, to name a few), but sometimes it also encompasses different aspects of art, education, journalism, and even sciences like history, geography, sociology, and anthropology.
Documentary photography has been described as a genre, a form, a tradition, a style, a movement, and a practice. But whatever you decide to call it, it’s our main vehicle for an intimate exploration of the world.
Each type of photography is essentially meant to document something, but that doesn’t necessarily make it documentary. Why is that? Cicero first used the term ‘docere’ (origin of the contemporary ‘document’) back in 55 BC, to outline the three compulsory elements of the rhetoric that make the ideal speaker - to teach (‘docere’), to delight and to move. Cicero broke down the term even further and summarized that ‘to teach’ meant to provide truth.
And if the rhetoric is the art of using speech to convince or persuade, documentary photography is the art of using visual storytelling. Based on its origins, it’s safe to conclude that the main characteristics of documentary photography are its power to teach, to delight and to move.
Furthermore, as we’ll see later on in our journey through the history of this genre, the pioneers of documentary photography used it as a rhetoric means to acquaint the general public with issues such as shameful, discriminatory, or harmful working or living conditions associated with a particular group of children or adults; environmental problems; disappearing cultures; violation of human rights; socio-economic divides; the effects of climate change, and the like; and thus make way for social change.
Documentary photography does not always depict loss and despair. Social documentary photography is just one of many subgenres and potential points of view. Regardless of the story behind it, the capture is always full of life and the messages it conveys turn both the insignificant, daily-life moment and the exclusive, history-changing event, into art.
And, as we’re about to find out, the power of documentary photography has changed history’s course on numerous occasions by bringing public focus on the subjects that it explores.
That’s probably due to the fact that documentary photographers use the images as a form of storytelling, seeking to elevate understanding about what the camera’s eye is recording. For this reason, documentary photography takes time.
Just like an expedition to an unknown land. And no matter how well-known, thoroughly explored and meticulously photographed our world may seem, there’s always going to be stories left untold. And it’s those exact stories that documentary photographers covet with the fervor of voyagers from the time of the Great Geographical Discoveries.
It takes weeks, months, sometimes even years for a photographer to completely immerse himself in the ambiance and get familiar with his subjects. He must be willing to take a step back from the busy present-day world and look for the universal human values – those pertaining not only to our civilization but to Man as a whole. In this way only is he able to steal a moment out of its context in the here and now and make it last forever. Documentary photography aims to tell a story, to leave a legacy; a document that tells the truth through a broader narrative than that found in a typical breaking-news image.
This long-form storytelling is becoming increasingly important. It expands our own perception of the world and ultimately leads us to brand new points of view. Documentary photographers try to meld into their surroundings and by building trust with the people around them they may even become part of it. Such efforts enable photographers to acquire a more nuanced understanding of the subjects they document, see past generalizations and stereotypes, and become more sensitive to the cultural and social contexts in order to record true, daily life situations and to reveal the complex layers of life, the facets of daily existence, and the raw emotions of the people who come under the camera’s gaze.
In order to gain people’s trust and full sincerity, a documentary photographer needs to spend a substantial amount of time among his subjects, socializing, building close relationships and sometimes even go as far as to adopt their ways before even thinking about getting his camera on. Thus, documentary photography typically represents an ongoing story which it relates through a series of photographs.
A documentary photographer approaches each new idea or project with the curiosity of an explorer – perhaps the same curiosity that Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama had towards life and man. Regardless of the object – the never-before-seen continent of America; the indigenous tribes of the Amazon; or the shady underground figures of the contemporary megapolis – we let our eyes and minds open up to something new and unfamiliar.
There’s a whole universe lying between this world and the other – the photographs of today and the photographs of a hundred years back. But as far-off and unfamiliar as this other world may seem, documentary photography somehow manages to evoke images of another self in another life. As if our own selves are waving back from those age-old photographs, regardless of time and distance. Because no matter how different a world might seem, in its core lie intertwined the same timeless human emotions and feelings, characteristic of every man that has ever lived.
In its essence, documentary photography is the most powerful visual tool of preserving and expressing the world as is. It provides a straightforward and accurate representation with a typically predetermined intention to explain a particular cultural or social phenomenon.
To be convincing, the documentary photographer always needs to stick to the truth.
Usually, though, this proves to be quite a difficult task. It’s almost impossible to remain an impartial, direct messenger of truth. Because, let’s face it – there’s hardly one single, universal truth. A simple decision such as choosing where and when exactly to pull the trigger already bends the truth. The constant choices a photographer faces and the responsibility he’s burdened with to make the final selection and to put a description on each capture, turns him into an author, and turns photography into a full-fledged means of expression, and ultimately - art.
Or, as the notorious New York writer and art critic David Levi Strauss stresses out in his book “Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics”:
“The idea that the more transformed or ‘aestheticized’ an image is, the less `authentic’ or politically valuable it becomes, is one that needs to be seriously questioned. … To represent is to aestheticize: that is, to transform. It presents a vast field of choices but it does not include the choice not to transform, not to change or alter whatever is being represented. It cannot be a pure process in practice. This goes for photography as well as for any other means of representation.”
For this reason, documentary photographers try to meddle in reality as little as possible. Following the basic rule, to teach, to delight and to move, they’re bound to face the challenges of the good-old rhetoric, but they never turn their back on the aesthetic, too. After all, they’re well aware that this is what captures a viewer’s attention and makes him believe in their ‘truth’.
In order to preserve the authentic image of reality, the aesthetic means documentary photographers use often boil down to the classic understanding of aesthetics and of composition in visual arts, but without further tampering. Those messengers of reality let life unfold before their eyes and thus manage to capture its pure energy.
To demonstrate the authenticity of their photographs, they employ a number of ethical principles, some of which are still in use by certain authors: printing out photographs in a black frame from the original film as proof that whatever the camera has captured is visible to the viewer in that same way; the exclusive use of natural light to stay as close to the original state of the objects as possible; keeping the capture’s original proportions and avoiding cropping.
With that same intention, the main tool that the famous French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson used was his patience. He trusted that the world would align in a perfect aesthetic composition on its own. He called that the decisive moment – a split second in which everything in the capture is right where it belongs, until, just a moment later, life goes back to its usual chaotic ways.
And since you’ve signed up for this unique journey, the time has come to delve into the real adventure and discover the world’s greatest treasures from the bird’s eye view of documentary photography!
Types Of Documentary Photography
Photography as an art cannot be put in a precise order and be strictly classified, unlike botany, for example. And it’s precisely in that abstract nature where its beauty lurks.
As we’ve already established, documentary photography can be as versatile as the world it expresses. That is why most photography genres share common traits and sometimes may even overlap.
Usually, all photographs from a certain genre are characterized by a specific set of narrative and stylistic features that they all share. Documentary photography, for example, has the distinctive stylistic trait of expressing reality as truly as possible with the intention to explain a particular cultural or social phenomenon, and by following the main principles of the rhetoric - to teach, to delight and to move.
If we were to add all possible storylines to those particular stylistic features, it’d become obvious that many photography genres can actually be considered as part of documentary photography. Or, at least, as sharing some of its traits. That’s probably due to the fact that documentary photography is one of photography’s earliest genres. Throughout its history (also valid for the history of all arts), each new genre has been inspired and somewhat influenced by the previous ones.
Social Documentary Photography
Social documentary photography is one of the earliest types of documentary photography. In all honesty, the 20th-century social documentary photographers considered their photographs simply as “documents” bringing the public focus on urgent social issues. The term “documentary photography” was adopted only after John Grierson, known as the father of British and Canadian documentary cinema, declared his personal battle against the “dream factory” that Hollywood had turned into.
Social documentary photography appeared amidst the blindly optimistic and economically prosperous Belle Époque. During that time social injustice was markedly denounced by the progressive. Poor men were seen as social failures and they had to cope on their own without help from the government or even from non-government organizations.
Poverty, social inequality, disgraceful working and living conditions, child labor, discrimination in all its aspects, environmental problems - all of these have been the main focus of social-documentary photographers from its very beginning.
But as repulsive as those issues might seem now; and as much as you would hate having such a picture hanging on your bedroom wall, prepare to be surprised.
Social documentary photography has brought a remarkably positive change in the world as it solved a series of global problems by inducing legal revisions; helping the needy; decreasing world hunger; ending political conflicts and even wars. All of this would be the subject of our journey later on when you’ll be given concrete facts on how exactly has documentary photography changed the world for the better.
For now, it’s important to remember that social documentary photography is first and foremost a constant struggle to solve global issues. Everyone who’s in some way involved in this revolutionary change is a vital part of the world’s positive transformation happening all around us.
If you expect gruesome naturalistic scenes, sorry to disappoint you - in this genre, human values and personalities are put on a pedestal and photographers give their best to maintain their subject’s integrity. What’s more, the genuine happiness and innate freedom of the human spirit are often clearest in the eyes of the poor and completely missing from the contemporary man.
Famous Social Documentary Photographers
(1849 - 1914)
Jacob Riis used documentary photography as a weapon aimed at the horrid living conditions of the inhabitants of New York City’s slums in the 1880s - about a third of a million people, most of whom were immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.
He himself was an immigrant - he arrived at the United States in the 1970s. He came a long way from being a poor foreigner doing carpentry to a well-respected journalist and photo reporter. His works have never claimed to be aesthetical. His only purpose was to engage the public’s attention with the issues of the lower classes.
Equipped with a detective camera (as large as a small-sized suitcase), Riis captured what would later be known as the first social documentary photographs.
(1864 - 1946)
Despite his early interest in street photography, Alfred Stieglitz is an important figure of social documentary photography as well. With his high intelligence and European education, he’s considered an innovator in many ways.
Back in 1902, he founded “Photo-Secession” - a project that promoted the role of photography as an art. Three years later he opened the world’s first photography gallery, in New York. For 14 years (from 1903 to 1917) he published “Camera Work”, a photographic journal that presented the finest pieces of photography from that time.
To a large extent, he owes his fame as a social documentary photographer to a capture which he called “The Steerage”. It later became one of the most emblematic photographs of the 20th century. According to Stieglitz, what makes this capture so exceptional is the symbiosis of sophisticated aesthetic inherited by fine art with a socially significant subject matter. In short, this is one of the first examples of using all expression tools mentioned earlier, namely - to teach, to delight, and to move. Thus, Stieglitz’s main battle to establish photography as a universally recognized art form was now won thanks to his capture, in which the aesthetic and the dramatic come together to build a mature artwork - a true masterpiece.
(1874 - 1940)
In 1908 Hine was appointed by the National Child Labor Committee as a sociologist and a photographer to investigate the growing issue of child labor in American industry. During the next 13 years, he produced thousands of photographs of children working across the country - in mills, sweatshops, factories, and various street trades. Many of those were taken with a hand camera, hidden inside a lunch box.
Despite the project’s purely factual, documentary objective, Hine went one step further and just like Stieglitz, he created much more than simple photographs - his works were full-fledged artistic compositions with high aesthetic value. The emotional charge pouring out of those captures is enough to make us believe in the art of documentary photography.
(1895 - 1965)
The Great Depression began in August 1929, when the US economy first went into an economic recession. After six long, devastating years, especially for the country’s agriculture, a brand-new US federal agency was created, dedicated to building relief camps in California for migratory workers and poor farmers who’d lost their living immediately following the recession.
Nobody ever suspected that the Farm Security Administration would be forever commemorated for its secondary informative documentary campaign, recording for posterity the disastrous consequences of the Great Depression. It only took eleven photographers for the project’s realization. Their main task was to capture as genuinely as possible the tough living conditions of American farmers between 1935 and 1944. More than 250,000 photographs were taken - crude images of rural poverty, now regarded as a “national treasure” in the United States.
Dorothea Lange spent 5 years actively working for this new Agency and thus became arguably the most famous woman social documentary photographer in the word. Her works brought the plight of the poor and forgotten - particularly sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers - to public attention. Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother” became a world-renowned symbol of the Great Depression, and maybe even of all universal human values, expressed in the image of the Mother.
Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein are yet another example of social documentary photographers who had also been appointed by the Farm Security Administration and were later acclaimed for their Depression-era works.
(born in 1944)
The Brazilian is a central figure of contemporary social documentary photography. Strictly following the aesthetic seekings of his predecessors, Salgado managed to express present-day issues such as industrialization, migration and their ever-lingering companion - hunger, without (ab)using the usual naturalism or repulsive pathos common among his fellow photojournalists.
Some of Salgado’s most notorious photographs were taken at a gold mine in Serra Pelada in north-west Brazil. In 1986 Salgado spent a whole week among some 50 thousand workers whose daily routine was to carry by hand heavy bags (each weighing between 30 and 60 kg) from the bottom of a high hill to its top. All this… for 20 cents.
Street Photography as a form of Documentary Photography
A quick Google search on ‘street photography’ will yield countless results explaining how and why street photography is not documentary photography. Very few sources, though, will actually tell you what makes both genres so similar.
As we’ve already mentioned, documentary photography is primarily a stylistic genre, while street photography’s main focus is on its subject - the street and the man in an urban environment. So, there’s really no confrontation - on the contrary, the unique amalgam of style and storyline makes for the perfect piece of art.
Although both genres may overlap, not every street photograph is a documentary one. Let’s not forget that documentary photography always seeks the story behind the capture, while street photography is more interested in the composition for composition’s sake, thus missing the main point - to bring a pinch of empathy to the viewer.
In contemporary street photography, the photographer and his subject remain distant. This strips the man off his innate humanness and makes him a soulless decor against an urban backdrop. But this is rather a misconception enhanced by various factors, especially the fact that today there are more amateur photographers than ever. The lack of experience and the uneasy feeling of approaching a stranger and stepping into his personal space is a weakness that puts street photography at stake.
By the end of the 1970s, most lifestyle magazines promoting everyday life and culture had slowly died out. Thus, the better part of street photographers had to find new means of expression and livelihood. Half a century later those who decided to commit themselves to street photography are only few. What you see today in the web are mostly the works of amateurs.
Every single day millions of non-professional “photographers” get out on the street in their free time, only to shoot aimlessly the life happening around them. This creates a horrible disarray of scenes, often compared to the (literally) “street photography” made by Google Street View’s automatic cameras.
Many street-photography amateurs believe that Providence will lead them to the “golden snapshot” and they often point this out as an argument against the traditional documentary-photography approach of seeking the perfect picture, rather than bumping into it. But, let’s take as an example the most notorious street photographers. What might seem like a random strolling around in search of whatever subject happens to be there, turns out to be a well-calculated series of matching storylines. Together, arranged in a book or an exhibition, they form an inspiring, cohesive photo-documentary project.
All arguments that street photography captures an unplanned moment in time and is absent of a central theme or topic are just an excuse for the amateur. A professional can see the storyline behind each and every passer-by, and express that story in a memorable street photograph.
Without the vital documentary approach, street photography is deprived of the chance to remain in history. Many of the “free-composition” supporters claim that each photo can become valuable in time. Then again, let’s remember the difference between artifact and art - while the first is primarily the product of craftsmanship and skill, the second is invested with an emotional, philosophical, spiritual or aesthetic quality that reaches beyond.
Street photography as a form of documentary photography has been known since the beginning of photography. In just a little while you’ll be acquainted with some of its most prominent figures and will hopefully get convinced that documentary street photography depends on a bit more than simple chance.
Famous Street Photographers
(1820 - 1880)
The first social documentary photographers should be looked for in the USA; the first street photographers, however, can be found in Europe. The French painter Charles Nègre adopted photography with the sole intention of using the pictures as a reference to sketch his own paintings.
It’s definitely not a coincidence that a painter is regarded as the father of street photography - the aesthetical wanderings in this genre will always mark its history. Nègre was the first to capture moving figures in an unmanipulated environment.
Eugene Atget began his “affair” with street photography having the same purpose as Nègre - to help advance painting. Not his own painting, though - he sold his pieces to painters and architects. Atget documented Paris from the late 19th to the beginning of the 20th century with a remarkable meticulousness.
In a time when street photography was still evolving, Atget took a steadfast approach towards his works and organized them in a few documentary series, the most significant of which is “Paris Pittoresque” where the author portrays Paris in 900 photographs. Thanks to his acute attention to detail in capturing the streets of Paris, Atget is considered to be the first architectural photographer.
Part of the “Paris Pittoresque” series is dedicated to the “Small trades in Paris”, which is especially valuable for building the image of the man in an urban environment, and would establish a pattern for street photography as a whole.
(1894 - 1985)
One of photography’s greatest figures is the Hungarian photographer André Kertész. He’s one of the first documentary photographers to actively work with the composition and pursue the absolute artistic balance in a photograph. Or, according to his own words:
“It’s not a good photograph without good composition. Originally I’m an aeronautical engineer. Why do airplanes fly? Because there is balance.”
He was only 18 when he took his first shot in 1912. His subject - a young man sleeping in a café in Budapest, proved his inclination towards the authentic, real-life scene, so typical for street photography. At that same period - his first, Hungarian period - Kertész made some of his most impressive rural photographs of peasants and gypsies. Later, during his Parisian period (1925-1933) he greatly contributed to humanist photography (more on that to follow).
(1908 - 2004)
As photography rapidly progressed and new hand-held 35mm cameras were invented, more and more photographers grew interested in capturing the ordinary people’s lives in a less formal way. As a consequence, many photographers started shooting their subjects in secret, hoping to catch a glimpse of the most intimate, candid scenes of their everyday lives; scenes that would carry the authentic documentary character of the time.
During the years after WWI, when humanity turned its gaze towards universal values such as humanism and freedom, Cartier-Bresson aimed to capture the spirit of his time. He painted black all the shiny elements of his first Leica camera and set off looking for ways to shoot the most intimate moments of man in his private world, while still hidden. This approach, called “candid photography”, was adopted by the very first social documentary photographers mentioned earlier. The difference is, those photographers had to stay out of sight from the industrial exploiters of children, and from other people who would’ve disapproved of their social-changing mission.
Cartier-Bresson’s mission was a bit different, though. During the 1830s Paris became the birthplace of one of the most poetic street-photography movements - the French humanist photography. Humanist photography would soon evolve into this exceptional social phenomenon, supported by popular illustrated magazines from that time, as well as by the Ministry of tourism which quickly realized the positive image of France that this genre promoted.
The leitmotif of Cartier-Bresson’s, Robert Doisneau’s, Willy Ronis’ and other famous humanist photographers’ works is the man in an urban environment - from emblematic strolls on the paved Parisian streets; through booming artistic life in popular cafés and night lounges; to idealized images of city marginals and street vendors. This artistic movement is called by the French publisher Claude Nori “a poetical reality”. The simultaneously authentic and idealized image of the man turns this into the most widespread form of street and documentary photography in France between 1930 and 1968.
(1910 - 2009)
Ronis is considered to be one of the most important figures of humanist photography. His deep interest in street scenes and the life of the ordinary man are symbolic not only for his own works but for the whole epoch. His street photographs were so popular, he became the first French photographer to work for the American LIFE magazine.
(1912 - 1994)
Doisneau is yet another humanist photographer who took his most memorable captures out on the streets of Paris. Or, as he himself once said:
“The street is a theater for which man pays with his time.”
He became one of the first professional street photographers, thanks to his contract with Rapho agency. His photographs were included in the blooming French postcard industry, and also found their place in some of the most famous lifestyle magazines of the time.
Doisneau is known for his candid street photographs of children, playing freely on the streets of Paris. This was a recurring theme in his career. Arguably his most famous piece of work, though, is “Kiss by the Town Hall” - a photograph of a couple kissing on a busy Parisian street.
The first photographer ever to take street photographs at night was the British Paul Martin. The photographs were taken at the end of the 19th century when isochromatic plates required exposures of ten to fifteen minutes. Not only was it impossible for him to capture human figures due to the long exposure, but he was also often reported to the police by suspicious residents of late-night London.
Almost 40 years later photography already made it possible for the Hungarian street photographer Brassai to publish his works of Paris at night, in which human figures were an inseparable part of.
(born in 1924)
Now, let’s fly across the ocean to meet Robert Frank, who published his book “The Americans” in the USA, in 1959. During the years after the Great Depression and World War II, documentary photography sought more modern ways of expressing social life. To realize his project, Robert Frank took a two-year journey across USA’s biggest cities, trying to catch along the way all of society’s nuances in his candid black-and-white photographs.
(born in 1950)
Although Steve McCurry has spent most of his life working as a photojournalist, reporting war conflicts all around the globe, he remains better known for his more-recent street photographs in full color. India has been his favorite destination for more than 30 years now; he’s been there over 75 times. But, as he modestly said, he had “just scratched the surface”.
One of his most powerful works is “A crowd carries a man during the Holi festival in Rajasthan in 1996”. In a single capture, he achieved one of the toughest challenges of documentary photography - a total harmony of colors without prior adjustment.
Portrait Photography as a form of Documentary Photography
The portrait is undoubtedly one of the basic elements not only of photography but of visual arts as a whole. Despite this genre’s long history, the challenges photographers face today are no less frequent. The main goal of each portrait is to express the genuine state of the subject and its core personality. A portrait that shows a man’s life-story and character along with his purely anthropological features is, essentially, documentary photography.
The documentary photographer is like a psychologist who carefully observes and examines his subjects. He gently pulls the strings of their souls, causing them to show their real “self”; or better yet - he remains silent, hidden in the back, making sure not to break the balance of their natural disposition.
You won’t find in a true documentary portrait the pretentious pose, meaning “to represent oneself falsely; pretend to be other than what one is”.
Photographing actors outside of their professional environment proves to be a very difficult task for each photographer. A challenge that Albert Watson took upon himself when he decided to make a photo of Jack Nicholson at his home. Or rather, out in his courtyard. Aspen had rarely seen such snowfall and Nicholson seemed really excited to stand the elements in the white blizzard. Watson left his model waiting outside, while he enjoyed some refreshments inside the actor’s apartment. About half an hour later, when Nicholson had already forgotten all of his lines, Watson went out and took his renowned picture which is, to this day, a true masterpiece of portrait photography.
Cartier-Bresson is another documentary photographer, who made sure to preserve the authenticity of his subjects at all costs. In 1944 he had an appointment with Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie to make photographic portraits of the two in their home. Later he shared what had happened:
“I entered. Before I said “Hello” I shot with my camera. It wasn’t good manners.”
What Cartier-Bresson meant was that he was so overwhelmed by the look of the couple that he didn’t want to lose a second to catch the frankness in their faces.
Most photographic portraits are too much about technical aspects and special effects. Such portraits drift off to a different genre: they look like human still lives. This is often the case with fashion and beauty photography. Models are deprived of their human frailty and spiritual presence; and instead of daughters of Elysium, they become Cinderellas of the latest makeup trends. The search for beauty by means of makeup and special-effects processing is not fair, it steals the art from the photograph.
Most documentary photographers who work in the portrait genre dedicate weeks, months even years in order to create a deeper, more meaningful body of work, by making portraits of whole groups of people who share the same story. That’s how Cartier-Bresson created “The Europeans” (published in 1955). A few years later Robert Frank published “The Americans” (1959). And in 2015 Jimmy Nelson published his book “Before They Pass Away”, a series of portraits of indigenous and tribal people around the world.
Documentary portraits may carry the spontaneous spirit of street photography, as seen in Brassai’s and Cartier-Bresson’s works; or have the dramatic faces of Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs. But they can also be endearing portraits of children, part of the ever-so-popular documentary family photography; or even individual, separate entities that don’t belong to any established genre, but whose authenticity can be found in the eyes of their subjects.
Famous Portrait Photographers
(1890 - 1976)
Paul Strand will remain in history as the creator, along with Edward Weston and Alfred Stieglitz, of modern photography, at the beginning of the 20th century. After WWII a growing number of intellectuals became sympathizers of communism. That’s when Strand decided to leave the US for good and turn his back on his abstract, formal compositions for the sake of the common man.
At the beginning of the 1950s, he created his notorious portraits of farmers in the Italian province Luzzara. He published those in a book called “Un Paese” (1955) - the first significant photography book in Italy. One of the most prominent photographs from that series is the group portrait of the five Lusetti brothers with their mother. All of them - WWII veterans. Each of them - bearing a unique character, completely different from the rest, and exquisitely captured in this emblematic documentary family photograph.
(1923 - 1971)
Diane Arbus is famous for her extravagant portraits of freaks, eccentrics and marginal individuals in New York. Despite the critics by her contemporaries, Arbus’ works have been acknowledged as groundbreaking for modern documentary photography since their purpose is to cast light upon society as is, rather than dramatize it. A characteristic feature of Arbus’ portrait photography is her pioneering use of flash in broad daylight - in this way she manages to isolate her subject from its background.
(1923 - 2004)
Richard Avedon is widely-known as one of the most popular fashion photographers. However, this genre is out of the scope of documentary photography in whose light Avedon is introduced here. In 1974 he began the most significant project of his life so far, and, according to critics - his greatest masterpiece. In the course of five years, he traveled around the American West to realize his project of the same name, later published in a book and presented in an exhibition.
He turned his camera’s gaze towards the everyday American, by traveling through state fair rodeos, carnivals, coal mines, oil fields, slaughterhouses and prisons, and shooting 762 persons in a never-before-seen composition. Avedon’s experience in studio photography brought the white backdrop to the American West, isolating the subjects from their surroundings.
Such a direct impact on the surrounding environment is the bravest experiment a photographer can undertake when it comes to documentary photography. However, Avedon still managed to preserve the unaffected, natural essence of his subjects, and to document their characters with the pedantic accuracy of an insect collector.
His portrait of Ronald Fischer, “Beekeeper”, is a very precise representation of his project’s documentary concept. Evidence of that is the characteristic factual description of each capture, as well as the purposeful printing of the black frame of the 8×10 Kodak Tri-X Pan film.
Travel Photography and Nature Photography as forms of Documentary Photography
Travel photography is one of the earliest forms of documentary photography. And this is quite natural - back when there was no internet and no mass media, the interest in faraway, unknown lands was greater than ever.
Nothing could stop photographers from turning into true explorers by setting off on journeys full of surprises - neither the heavy cameras; nor the tough photographic development; not even the total lack of infrastructure and means of communication.
Roger Fenton, who, by the way, is considered the first military photographer ever, took a highly-dangerous trip to the Crimean War battlefield, by a van fully-packed with equipment.
During that time the English photographer Francis Frith dedicated years of his life to capturing scenes from the Middle East. Even after he got married in 1860, he never looked for an excuse to stop working. He found a way to stay close to his family while still pursuing his career. He took up an ambitious project - to photograph every town and village in the United Kingdom. Travel photographers from that period weren’t documentary photographers per se; they were true explorers. In 1862, John Thomson left Edinburgh for Singapore, beginning a ten-year period of traveling around the Far East. He analyzed in great detail the mainland territories of Malaya and the island of Sumatra, exploring the villages and photographing the native people and their activities.
Even at that time nature photography often went hand in hand with travel photography. Timothy H. O’Sullivan was appointed by the US Government to an expedition to map and discover geological information about the country’s lesser-known territories - Nevada and the Rockies, Panama, New Mexico. You can imagine how exciting it must’ve been for him to be the first one to delve into those wild mountains and unfamiliar canyons. Perhaps, it could only be compared (from a modern perspective) to exploring a distant planet.
Another prominent figure of nature photography is the German photographer Karl Blossfeldt, who didn’t travel far and wide for his documentary pursuits but rather turned his camera’s gaze towards the small large scales of plants in his macro photography series from the 1920s. Just like a fine artist Karl Blossfeldt presented natural forms in aesthetical artistic compositions, but the consistency and the botanical precision with which he “mapped” those forms, gave his photographs a documentary character.
The American Robert Adams had a more contemporary, engaged approach towards nature. In his documentary series from the 1960s and the 1970s, he expressed the clash between human activity and Colorado’s pristine nature. His taking part in the “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” exhibition proves the documentary character of his nature photography.
Photojournalism, War Photography, and Editorial Photography as forms of Documentary Photography
Presenting those three genres together is not a coincidence - they’re pretty much bound by the same thing - photography’s fair share in media.
Today, photojournalism is primarily used for breaking news stories and often plays a secondary, illustrative role to the main journalistic text. Those photographs often show frozen instants taken out of context and are pretty much an appendix to media propaganda. Photojournalism is defined by its interest in the results rather than the causes of a certain social phenomenon or event.
Such one-sided visual expression gives viewers straight answers and doesn’t induce their curiosity towards the dramatization and complex storyline behind the capture, so characteristic of documentary photography.
But the photojournalism of today is not the photojournalism of the past. Nowadays, reporting an event as fast as possible is vital; back in the day, presenting deep, long-form stories was considered way more valuable. Such forms of photojournalism can be found even today, however rarely, and that’s where the meeting point with documentary photography is.
The technology of serial printing of photographs hadn’t been invented yet when the first illustrated newspapers appeared in the middle of the 19th century. That’s why illustrations had to be engraved on wood first and only then applied onto paper.
Photojournalism secured its place in print media thanks to photographs of war conflicts and social issues. That’s why war photography and social documentary photography can be defined as the first genres of photojournalism.
Although war photography is often subjected to the immediacy of photojournalism, photographers such as Robert Capa and Don McCullin are now famous for their long and in-depth long-form stories from “hot spots” from all around the world, characteristic of documentary photography.
During the “Golden Age of Photojournalism” - between the 1930s and the 1950s - documentary photography overtook the covers of the major illustrated magazines at the time - LIFE, TIME and Look. The search for the universal human values in modern society was extremely important back then.
The best part of documentary photographers worked for those magazines, presenting all nuances of the world in simple scenes from the everyday life of the ordinary man; in exotic cultures from faraway lands; or in social and war conflicts.
The demand for such lifestyle magazines was so great and the competition between them - so severe, that at some point they started employing international correspondent photographers. That’s when the first assignments for documentary photographers appeared - they had to document certain events and social or cultural phenomenon which would add value to their editions. That’s how editorial photography appeared.
Contemporary Documentary Photography
After the appearance of television and the decline of magazine-published photography at the end of the 1970s most documentary photographers now need to organize their work around personally-financed independent projects; or look for partnership with non-government organizations.
I believe that partnering with different organizations and presenting any important issues by means of documentary photography could have a great social impact.
So, are there any projects that I can help you with? I’m willing to take up assignments by NGOs from all over the world; from three days up to three years.
Support documentary photography today so we end up with history tomorrow!