Book: The Documentary Impulse by Stuart Franklin

Short version: this should be the course reader.

41-5HKjfcrL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_The reading list for Documentary has a few good books on that cover a particular aspect of documentary photography (such as British documentary photography) and more that are general histories of photography (Bate, Wells, Marien) that include good coverage of documentary photography – but what is lacking is a thorough, in-depth, one-stop-shop overview of the whole genre. This book could fill that gap very well, as it covers many important aspects of documentary photography – not only the what, who, how, where and when but more interestingly (to me, anyway), the why.

Stuart Franklin (b. 1956) is perhaps best known for his iconic Tank Man (1989) shot from Tiananmen Square, China, but he has had a varied career including a stint as president of Magnum. It’s fair to say that he knows a thing or two about documentary photography.

Without summarising the entire book I will pull out a few themes that connected with me.

A ‘creative treatment of actuality’

The book opens with a good analysis of the origins and definition of the term ‘documentary’, using as its jumping-off point the phrase used by John Grierson, generally accepted as the originator of the word in the early 1930s: it is the “creative treatment of actuality” (Franklin 2016: 6, quoting Grierson 1933).

This short phrase fuses the two crucial and sometimes seemingly contradictory strands of documentary photography: that it allows creativity to the applied to reality, and accepts the element of subjectivity that means there is no singular truth but multiple presentable truths. Expanding on this, he quotes 19th century critic John Ruskin on the different types of truth:

“Ruskin felt the ‘truth of impression’ to be more important than ‘material truth’. In the documentary impulse, two species of ‘fact’ exist side by side: one is coolly objective and the other is fraught, diverse and emotive; one figurative, the other abstract; one prosaic, the other poetic; one factual, the other romantic.” (ibid: 6, paraphrasing Ruskin)

Negotiating these two types of truth is central to documentary photography. I confess that before my studies I held the view that Documentary = Truth. I am now much more conscious of the hidden hand of authorship behind all documentary photography.

“The documentary impulse embraces a dual approach to the treatment of actuality in which creativity, or the extent to which creativity is applied, is a selective process.” (ibid: 29)

Rhetorical tools

I’m particularly interested in the effects of reflexivity and authorship on documentary photography, and Franklin articulates a few authorship techniques, or tools of rhetoric as he calls them:

  • Selection (of pose, mood, expression – at the shooting stage and the editing stage)
  • Vantage point (low to aggrandise subject; high to diminish)
  • Colour (I will write a separate post on this point)
  • Lighting (especially to imply character in individuals)
  • Ambiguity (see next section)


Franklin is very good on ambiguity, another area of much interest to me at the moment. Harking back a little to the Ruskin quote above, he differentiates between didactic images and ambiguous (or poetic, or surreal) images that rely on the viewer doing some of the processing work.

Torso, Pelaw, Gateshead, Tyneside, 1978 by Chris Killip

He uses a Chris Killip image to illustrate his points on ambiguity (my emphasis):

“This photograph is important for two reasons. First, it performs a function that only photography can achieve: the creative treatment of actuality as revealing detail through stillness. Second, it is both rhetorical and ambiguous. So many of the signs that we search for in an image are missing. The face, the area of a picture
we rush to for clues, is missing. The background, the spaces where we look for context, is also absent. What remains is a living still life of exquisite detail from which our stories, our fictions and our metaphors can be built. Here begins a journey into the non-didactic, into the psychological control centre of what constitutes a large part of documentary practice: the ambiguous image.” (ibid: 146)

This all speaks to the point I found so interesting in Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs (2010) – the ‘mental level’ of appreciating a photograph, the space provided for the viewer to process an image.

Personally I find ambiguous images much more engaging than didactic ones. I like to bring some of my own mind to appreciating an image rather than have it presented to me fully ‘resolved’.

“That ambiguous photographs may possess a power equal to that of more didactic images I can only assume is because there is a great deal we still don’t understand about the way we read photographs.” (Franklin 2016: 197-198)

That’s just scratching the surface of this excellent book. I’m sure I’ll return to it a lot in the coming months.


Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. 2nd ed. New York: Phaidon Press.


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