Research point: documentary, a potted history

First post in a while as I’ve been off working on a Gesture & Meaning assignment…

As suggested by the course notes, I have been researching some of the historical developments in documentary photography. I haven’t limited this to the very early days however, rather I am attempting a high-level summary of a few major milestones and/or shifts in documentary photography since its inception. Whilst I understand that this is not exactly what was asked for, I found this more useful to do.

The origins of documentary

The term ‘documentary’ may have indeed been coined in 1926 by John Grierson (1898–1972) as noted in the course handbook, but the kind of photography under discussion here has existed almost since the invention of photography itself. Roger Fenton (1819–69) was covering the Crimean War in 1855 and Matthew Brady (1822–96) was doing the same for the America Civil War as early as 1861.

Back in the civilian world it was the likes of Jacob Riis (1849-1914) and Lewis Hine (1874–1940) who firmly established the genre of ‘social documentary’ in the minds of the public with their works on inner-city poverty and child labour respectively, setting an early benchmark on what documentary photography can achieve. Other, less heralded documentarians were practicing at around the same time, including the Scottish photographers Thomas Annan (1829–87) and John Thomson (1837–1921).

What all of these had in common was a reformist’s zeal to educate and inform – specifically using the indexical quality of photography to show the public of the appalling conditions that many people were suffering. Showing proved to be a more successful communication – and campaigning – technique than mere telling. A common criticism of these early practitioners, highlighted by Mary Warner Marien in Photography: A Cultural History, is their tendency towards condescension and/or sensationalism (2014: 277). Marien offers Hine as the exception that demonstrated some kind of empathy to his subjects.

Mass production and the golden age

Following the First World War, the explosive growth of mass printing led to something of a ‘golden age’ of documentary photography. The potential for photography as a tool for communication was exploited significantly in the 1920s and 1930s.

Without making this a discussion on the definition of documentary (one for another day perhaps), I am rather drawn to this from Bate: “Neither art nor advertising, documentary drew on the idea of information as a creative education about actuality, life itself” (2009: 45).

However, there comes a point where the distinction between documentary and ‘advertising’ (in its extreme variation of ‘propaganda’) becomes somewhat blurry. One interesting aspect of social documentary in the early 20th century is the question of patronage: the aims and vantage point of the work was often better understood with the knowledge of who had commissioned the photographs, and why (the latter can be inferred if not explicit). Understanding the who and the why can provide a nuanced interpretation of the “truth” presented by the images.

The question of editorial vs authorial intent is probably best illustrated by the work of the Farm Securities Administration (FSA), a government project to capture the lives of the workers in the American midwest during the Great Depression. The photography was clearly politically directed by ‘head office’ to further the aims of the ‘New Deal’, and the specific instructions to the photographers evolved over time depending on what the government wanted to communicate.

In comparison, the UK’s ‘Mass Observation’ project comes across as being much more objective, neutrally recording for posterity the minutiae of British life without any particular political agenda. It’s an anthropological, almost pseudo-scientific approach to documentary.

Marien argues that by the 1930s, the objective of much documentary work was not to effect social education or change; rather, “like experimental photography, the documentary look became a putatively apolitical visual style“; newspapers began to ape the FSA ‘style’ without the social change pretensions (Marien 2014: 287).

Eyewitness photography

The next identifiable trend in documentary photography grew between the 1930s and the 1950s, when the use of photographs to illustrate news stories grew into what became known as photojournalism and its close cousin reportage. The popularity of the Leica 35mm camera from the 1930s onwards freed documentary photography from its tripod and allowed nimble photojournalists to shoot on the hop – capturing images to accompany topical news stories in a way that hadn’t been possible with the preceding technology. So rather than the photography itself being the vehicle for education and by extension social change, the images became a visual counterpart to the stories as they unfolded – recording images in order to inform, but not necessarily to move, the audience.

This ‘eyewitness photography’ developed in a couple of identifiable but overlapping directions: the establishment of Magnum Photos in 1947 validated the profession of the photojournalist, while many of its practitioners – notably but not exclusively Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) – enjoyed parallel success by turning their camera to more everyday, humanist scenes. The flaneur with the Leica evolved into what later became known as the ‘street photographer’.

Towards the end of the 1950s Robert Frank (b.1924) broke new ground with The Americans (1958), a lyrical, sprawling, unfocused (in more ways than one) collection aiming to capture the essence of an entire nation. It was ‘documentary’, but not as anyone had previously known it; more impressionistic, more open to interpretation. No political agenda – just holding a mirror up to a nation. Documentary had become something looser.

A more personal approach

Typified by the so-called ‘New York school’ of the 1960s and 1970s, documentary photography really shed its strong association with social change when practitioners such as Lee Friedlander (b.1934), Garry Winogrand (1928-84) and Diane Arbus (1923-71) took a cue from the likes of Frank and shot subjects that interested them rather than subjects they felt were of interest to a wider audience. Curiosity became a legitimate reason for a documentary project.

Clarke posits that this coincided with a certain amount of ‘compassion fatigue’ around the time of the Vietnam War, along with questions on the authenticity of the documentary image: “[…] ‘documentary’ is itself confronting some kind of exhaustion” (1997: 163).

By the 1980s the likes of Nan Goldin (b.1953) and Larry Clark (b.1943) were turning their cameras inwards to their own communities, bringing a new intimacy to documentary photography that sometimes made uncomfortable viewing but often exuded a real sense of warmth and authenticity.

Colour and the snapshot aesthetic

One trend in documentary, best illustrated by Martin Parr (b.1952) since the 1980s is the brightly-coloured, pseudo-snapshot approach that takes a seemingly objective, deadpan view on its subjects and yet at the same time gives off a slight sense of superiority over them. In some ways it has common ground with the earliest uses of photography as typology, and has connotations of objectivity or maybe ‘democracy’ – but it is sometimes imbued with value judgements, intentional or otherwise.

Colour was spurned for a long time in the documentary medium, being seen as the reserve of snapshots and advertising – not ‘serious’ photography. Clarke takes the view that: “The colour brings us into the space, dissolving the distinction between subject and reader” (1997: 165). In other words, black-and-white emphasises ‘otherness’ (and its close companion ‘condescension’), while colour can emphasise ‘likeness’ (and evoke ’empathy’). Parr’s images contradict this theory for me however.

(The more I think about this, however, the more I believe I might only be talking about Martin Parr. And maybe one man is not a movement…)

Art/documentary crossover

To bring this highly-simplified whistlestop tour through the history of documentary photography to a close, a quick word on something that has most likely existed in some form or another for decades, but is possibly a little more obvious now: documentary photography that is also art photography.

Again, without starting a definition boundary dispute, there is clearly some overlap between the two. A documentary image can become a piece of art (the reverse journey doesn’t seem to make the same kind of sense). A more interesting way to think about it is the work of the photographer who brings an artist’s sensibility and creativity to documentary work. This is not new; Bill Brandt (1904-83) and others brought an artist’s eye to social documentary work as far back as the 1930s. In Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain 1929 to Now, Tanya Barson puts it as:

“Thus Brandt’s work occupies apparently conflicting territory and confronts the divisions between the fields of documentary, art and propaganda, employing strict observation combined with avant-garde creativity and fictitious devices” (Barson 2006: 13).

Mary Warner Marien quotes John Grierson as describing documentary as “an ‘anti-aesthetic’ movement that knew how to use aesthetics” (Marien 2014: 278).

Contemporary practitioners such as Alec Soth (b.1969) and Luc Delahaye (b.1962) each bring their own version of the crossover point between art and documentary, both having produced work that is documentary in subject matter but distributed through the ‘art market’.

That’s enough for now. I know it’s very high level and missing lots of names but my intention here was to put some stakes in the ground along the line of documentary photography history. I’ll fill in some of the more interesting details (and maybe correct myself!) in the coming months.


Barson, T., Campany, D. & Morris, L. (eds.) (2006) Making History: Art and Documentary in Britain from 1929 to Now . Liverpool: Tate Publishing.

Bate, D. (2008) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen: Steidl

Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. 4th edn. United Kingdom: Laurence King Publishing.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th edn. New York: Routledge.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s