Exercise: John Levy on intent


Listen to John Levy, founder of Foto8, talking about documentary in the art gallery at http://oca-student.com/node/100127 and note down your reactions to Levy’s comments in your learning log.


This is intended to be the second part of the exercise A decisive moment? but I found it to be so disconnected from that theme that I couldn’t work out why the two had been bracketed together like this.

Also – the brief described it as Levy “talking about documentary in the art gallery” and yet the clip is entitled John Levy on Intent. The documentary/art discussion is a minor point towards the end, and it was about genre overlap.

Intent is at the start of the photographic journey; the art gallery (or any other distribution method) is at the other end. Input vs output.

I was sufficiently confused as to check the course Errata to find out if the wrong link had been posted! But no, it is the right clip… I’m just scratching my head on its inclusion here, and the way it’s described in the brief. Hey-ho.

My main takeaway was that Levy has a criterion for whether something is ‘photojournalism’ (Foto8’s specialism), and this is whether the photographer had a clear intent in mind before shooting. It seems that some photographers assemble a series of images and reverse-engineer them into an intent after the fact (I concede that I have certainly done this for OCA assignments…).

To nitpick, I don’t believe he means just having an intent is the criterion, its having a photojournalistic intent – i.e. to inform an audience of a subject through images. One can start a project with an intent to be highly conceptual – it’s an intent, just an artistic one rather than a documentarian one. His point seemed to be aimed more at the retro-justification problem, as he does talk about the “ambiguity between journalism and art“. This reminded me of the Miranda Gavin interview from earlier in the course, where genre categorisation can become problematic when one needs to lay out a photography magazine. Maybe Gavin should adopt Levy’s intent test.

The other point I took away was the reassurance that photojournalism doesn’t need to mean Big Stories in Faraway Places – it can be “local, personal, impressionistic” as Levy puts it.

Anyway: an interesting interview, though a puzzling inclusion.


John Levy on Intent http://oca-student.com/node/100127 (accessed 03/03/2016)

Foto8 http://foto8.com (accessed 03/03/2016)


Exercise: A decisive moment?


Read Simon Bainbridge’s article on the 2011 Hereford Photography Festival. Select one of the bodies of work in the article and write a 200-word reflective commentary in your learning log.


Bainbridge’s article accompanies Time & Motion Studies, an exhibition featuring the works of five very different photographers – “each the result of deliberate and sustained observation” (Bainbridge 2011).

In both the subtitle of the exhibition (New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment) and in the article text Bainbridge discusses (one could say dismisses) the notion of ‘the decisive moment’.

Before I do the 200 words on one of the artists in the article, permit me to express my thoughts on ‘the decisive moment’:

Personally I think ‘the decisive moment’ is the most often misunderstood term in photography, whether being praised or debunked.

Whilst associated with Henri Cartier-Bresson, he is never recorded as having used the exact phrase. What he did say that echoes the spirit of the phrase was:

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” (Cartier-Bresson 1952)

The word ‘decisive’ is somewhat misleading; in a photojournalistic sense it implies a pinnacle to the unfolding story when in fact Cartier-Bresson’s point was about a moment not decisive to the event itself, but decisive to the forming of a good photograph. It does not need to be dramatic. At its simplest it’s just about finding the right time to press the shutter.

The definite article that begins the phrase is also problematic, implying a singular decisive moment, a fleeting temporal bullseye to hit or miss – but this is rarely the case. Better to talk of multiple potential decisive moments where elements briefly form themselves into a pleasing geometry. In this sense I like the title of this section of the course notes (‘A decisive moment?‘).

Finally it’s worth noting that the very idea of decisive moments, even in the sense described above, may not apply to all types of photography. Its original context was unposed, unpredictable people photography: photojournalism, street photography etc. It’s less applicable to, say, portraiture, landscapes or constructed tableaux.

Having got that off my chest, on to the artist review!

Donald Weber: Interrogations

Whilst aesthetically I was drawn to Manuel Vasquez’s semi-abstract Traces, I chose not to review this as it’s montage-based work and more graphic art than documentary photography.

So I selected the Donald Weber work Interrogations. One might argue that this is the most ‘typical’ documentary project of the five; I found it to be the most visceral and shocking. The images so coldly capture moments of police brutality (or at least its threat) that it’s easy to suspect they’ve been staged; armed with the assurances that they are genuine, captured moments, you feel a real sense of the power imbalance in the scenes.

Interrogations © Donald Weber

What struck me beyond the shock of the content was Weber’s eye for composition. In many of the images the geometry strongly supports the underlying message – in the example above, note the diagonals giving a sense of disorientation, the leaning suspect cowering and pinned to the desk, the disembodied arm coming in a downward diagonal representing the (misused) authority of the police – faceless to signify the systemic nature of the situation. It’s not clear whether Weber recognised this ‘decisive moment’ at the time, or identified it later in the selection process – but what is clear is that this was a photographically decisive moment. So I guess I’m slightly disagreeing with Bainbridge…!


Time & Motion Studies: New documentary photography beyond the decisive moment  http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/hereford_bainbridge.pdf (accessed 03/03/2016)

Manual Vasquez’s Traces http://www.manuelv.net/PROJECTS/TRACES/thumbs (accessed 03/03/2016)

Donald Weber’s Interrogations https://www.lensculture.com/articles/donald-weber-interrogations (accessed 03/03/2016)

Exercise: The myth of objectivity


“For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a non-living agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man… in spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually, re-presented… ”.

(André Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’ in What is Cinema? 1945: 7)

“If we accept the fundamental premise that information is the outcome of a culturally determined relationship, then we can no longer ascribe an intrinsic or universal meaning to the photographic image.”

(Allan Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’, 1997: 454)

Write a 250-word reflective commentary on the above quotes by André Bazin and Allan Sekula. Briefly compare their respective positions and record your own view on the issue of photographic objectivity.


It’s tempting to take these quotes at face value as being oppositional. However, this would be a mis-reading – they’re not talking about the same thing. Language is slippery, but the meaning of ‘objective’ is key to this discussion.

  • Bazin’s quote is about an objective likeness:
    • he compares photography to painting
    • and is primarily concerned with the accuracy of reproduction
    • he is referring to what is inside the frame
  • Sekula’s point is about an objective meaning:
    • which is dependent on the intentions of the photographer (known or unknown)
    • and on the cultural context of both the photographer and the viewer
    • and so is really talking about what is outside the frame

It’s also slightly disingenuous to preset Bazin’s position as so absolute; the quote above is much edited, and the ellipsis in the middle contains the following clarifying statement:

“The personality of the photographer enters into the proceedings only in his selection of the object to be photographed, and by way of the purpose he has in mind. Although the final result may reflect something of his personality, this does not play the same role as is played by that of the painter. All the arts are based on the presence of man, only photography derives an advantage from his absence.” (Basin 1945: 7)

He is therefore conceding – though downplaying – the influence of the photographer.

Basin’s assertion about objectivity-from-indexicality is naive in its dismissal of the external factors that led to the photographer pointing the camera at the subject; “and by way of the purpose he has in mind” can cover a multitude of highly subjective considerations beyond the much-quoted ‘where to stand and when to press the shutter’.

I fundamentally subscribe to Sekula’s stance of no-fixed-meaning, though this is much more about what is happening in the minds of the human actors in the enterprise than what is framed in the photograph.

The two quotes are not oppositional, and it is theoretically possible to agree with both. The former is however more limited in scope (and naive) than the latter.


The Ontology of the Photographic Image http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/bazin_ontologyphoto_0.pdf (accessed 03/03/2016)

On the Invention of Photographic Meaning http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/sekula_photomeaning.pdf (accessed 03/03/2016)


Exercise: In, Around & Afterthoughts


Read the article ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ by Martha Rosler in Bolton, R. (ed.) (1992) The Contest of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (p.303). Make notes in your learning log or blog.


All quotes are from the essay as included in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001 (Rosler 2004).


Rosler places documentary photography in a political context, as it “has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery.” (Rosler 2004: 176). She argues that it has a moralistic basis which she differentiates from a genuine “revolutionary politics” (ibid: 177)

She posits that charity is inherently exploitative and patronising to the subjects, and unhelpful in the long term as it reinforces the power gap: “Charity is an argument for the preservation of wealth” (ibid: 177)

If I can pick apart Rosler’s opening position:

“Why is the Bowery so magnetic to documentarians? It is no longer possible to evoke the camouflaging impulses to “help” drunks and down-and-outers or “expose” their dangerous existence.” (ibid: 175)

‘No longer’ implies that it once was; is Rosler’s problem only with documentary photography subjects that have already been covered? Is it the pointless repetition (that implies voyeurism) that she objects to? Or is she saying that it was never acceptable but people used to make these excuses? It also remains unclear whether she is criticising documentarians for knowingly or inadvertently reinforcing class inequality – is she accusing them of exploiting, or patronising?


Roster continues in political terms. To her, liberalism is already dead by 1981: “The War on Poverty has been called off. Utopia has been abandoned, and liberalism itself has been deserted.” (ibid: 178). What remains is its ghost in the form of documentary photography. So we no longer care for society’s problems, but we now pretend to through images. Documentary packages up lower class suffering for middle class consumption.

I found myself not wholly agreeing with her politically-charged take on the world, in part down to her USA-centric bias. She described liberalism as having been “routed” and refers to the “fading of liberal sentiments” (ibid: 179), and from a European perspective this doesn’t ring quite as true.

The clinging to the status quo is clearly a point of frustration to Rosler, as she returns to it with this: “Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome.” (ibid: 179) – accusing documentary photography of fatalism and acceptance of inequality.


A further point of frustration for Rosler is the over-appreciation of the photographer: images of social inequality are primarily, to the middle class viewers, testament to the bravery of the photographer – it is they who the viewer identifies with, not the subject (the Other). I do see Rosler’s point here: one might not often see a book or exhibition about a particular conflict or humanitarian crisis, but one will often see such collections of the works of, say, Robert Capa or Don McCullin. Photographers > subjects.

This idea of a transition from ‘documentary’ (subject-based) to ‘art’ (artist-based) brings us to one of the often-quoted observations of the essay, the two “moments” of a documentary photo (ibid: 185-186):

  1. The “immediate, instrumental one, in which an image is … held up as testimony
  2. The “conventional aesthetic-historical” one, that is concerned with ‘rightness’ or ‘wellformedness’ of the visual image

Her view is that society’s political shift to the right has led to “the aestheticization of meaning and the denial of content, the denial of the existence of the political dimension” (ibid: 188). In other words, moment 1 fades and what remains (can be admired, exhibited, bought and sold) is moment 2.

She also asserts that the age of true social conscience-based photography has passed, and the photographer is more likely to be working from a standpoint of personal interest or pursuit of knowledge than an activist stance, that it’s more about ‘knowing’ than ‘bearing witness’ or ‘reforming’ – citing Szarkowski’s championing of Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand (ibid: 188-190). But again she is critical, questioning the right of photographers to judge the imperfections of the world. She is somewhat judgemental herself: “But rather than the sympathy and almost-affection that Szarkowski claimed to find in the work, I see impotent rage masquerading as varyingly invested snoop sociology” (ibid: 190).


This short segment sets up the Rosler project for which this essay was written to introduce: The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1981). It returns to the notion of documentary photography as voyeurism – “A safari of images.” (ibid: 191). Images of drunks are seen as examples of individual tragedies when they should instead be seen as a treatise on the political/social causes that led to these circumstances. One of her major themes returns: photography just shows inequality as a fact of life, and people should instead take up the challenge to change things.


Here Rosler discusses The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems itself. Its premise is that it features photographs of Bowery locations without people, juxtaposed with slang words used to mean drunk. This is, by not depicting the drunks themselves, “a work of refusal” (ibid: 191) – which is inherently a postmodern act. She is drawing attention to the stereotypes and limitations of the photographic medium by not shooting the actual subject – very self-conscious / self-referential. This work isn’t ‘about’ the Bowery, it’s ‘about’ documentary photography.

But how does Rosler’s approach differ greatly from that which she rejects, namely photographing the drunks? The title of the work admits that that her approach is “Inadequate“. It seems that one has to choose between ‘exploitative’ and ‘inadequate’. Her approach is less voyeuristic, yes, but goes does it go any further to drive political or social change the a ‘straight’ documentary photography project would? (In a very subtle way, maybe; the use of past participles – “plastered”, “boiled” etc – in her juxtaposed text does slightly allude to ‘this having been done to them’ by an outside agency rather than this being something they did to themselves – but that’s a linguistic aside that many may not have noticed.)

The ‘truth’ of the Bowery does not come through her images, as it is artificially deserted. So maybe being postmodern isn’t necessarily about depicting a truth so much as provoking thought.


After so many words railing against what is wrong with documentary photography, Rosler closes with a maddening slight conclusion of what it should be instead. She calls for a new kind of documentary: “a financially unloved but growing body of documentary works committed to the exposure of specific abuses” (ibid: 196).

How this fundamentally differs from the reformist documentary photography that she decries is pretty subjective, but in principle it means being less of a voyeur and more of an activist. And the question is, 35 years later, did this new kind of documentary arise? Sebastian Salgado and Manuel Rivera-Ortiz could argue that it did.

To bring this whole discussion back round to the subject of this section of the course, regarding postmodernism’s influence on documentary photography – a huge oversimplification might be:

  • Modernism = ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’
  • Postmodernism = ‘expression’ and ‘subjectivity’


Durden, M, (2013). Fifty Key Writers on Photography. Abingdon: Routledge.

la Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington: Focal Press.

Rosler, M. (2004) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Exercise: Discontinuities


Make a selection of up to five photographs from your personal or family collection. They can be as recent or as old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn’t belong to anyone else (i.e. no photographs of the Eiffel Tower).

Using OCA forums such as OCA/student and OCA Flickr group, ask the learning communities to provide short captions or explanations for your photographs.

Summarise your findings and make them public in the same forums that you used for your research. Make sure that you also add this to your learning log.


Below is each of the five images, one from each decade of my life so far, with the proposed explanations from other students, followed by the actual explanation. I will then summarise my findings and thoughts on this exercise and how I can apply it to my ongoing practice.



Suggested by others:

  • Brother and sister grew Britain’s first pineapple despite the persistent rain.
  • We’ve been to the fair.
  • Me, my little sister and the biggest pineapple
  • Two kids and a pineapple.
  • Me and my big brother
  • Proud of our mega big pineapple!

Real explanation:

  • Me (left) and my brother after winning a pineapple-shaped plastic ice bucket at our school’s first fundraising fair. Also the first time I was in the local paper.
  • A couple of people assumed that one of us was a girl! (let’s blame the poor quality scan…)
  • No-one guessed it was a fake pineapple (why would they!) yet this changes the story
  • Interestingly in the context of this exercise, the newspaper got my age wrong! So one can’t trust the documentary status of an image even when there are words attached…



Suggested by others:

  • Students protesting against halls going up for sale.
  • Squatting.
  • Summer days with my friends
  • Soaking up the sun with friends.
  • University mates

Real explanation:

  • Fellow Brits outside the apartment building we shared while working a summer in Boston, USA.
  • A few guesses were partly right but no-one correctly identified the specific context
  • I thought the American house style was quite distinctive but maybe not
  • One commenter was kind of half-right with ‘squatting’ as 11 of us lived in an apartment let to 4…



Suggested by others:

  • Birthday disco.
  • At X’s weeding with Uncle X.
  • Office meal out
  • Meeting the TV star…
  • Congratulations are in order.
  • 21st birthday do with my Dad

Real explanation:

  • Me meeting the actor who played Percy Sugden in Coronation Street – in my first post-grad job I helped to organise a corporate event at the Rovers Return with a bunch of celebs
  • So it was kind of an office meal out, but only one person got the celeb connection
  • Understandable that people assumed it was a relative – but I thought that including a (admittedly low-level!) celebrity would have made this more obvious than it was



Suggested by others:

  • Photographers at a Bali wedding discussing how distracting the flowers are going to look in their images.
  • Celebrating a wedding.
  • X’s wedding when we lived away.
  • wedding Caribbean style
  • Photographer chats to wedding guest.
  • It’s my wedding day – please don’t get the photographer drunk!

Real explanation:

  • Everyone guessed a wedding, no-one guessed it was mine!
  • I correctly thought that a pic that didn’t include me or my wife would be a little more obscure
  • Bonus point to those who spotted the photographer
  • Location was Seychelles but Bali and Caribbean are reasonable guesses given the scene



Suggested by others:

  • Please get that camera out of my face and let me sleep….
  • Your second love.
  • Puppy love
  • I’m only looking at you with one eye. I’m keeping my other eye on the treats coming my way.
  • My best mate (after my wife of course – but this one doesn’t answer back!)

Real explanation:

  • All of the guesses are right in their own way, but the particular significance is that this was the last photo of our first dog, the day we had to have her put to sleep
  • I wouldn’t have expected anyone to guess this, to be fair
  • The first comment was strangely close but I think unintentionally so…
  • This is a good example of the specific context changing the reading of the image, especially for a viewer with knowledge of the photos subject

What I’ve learned

This exercise brought home to me in practice one of the key aspects I covered in theory in the last exercise – that a photographic document is incomplete without context. I will repeat here a key quote from John Berger on the subject:

“In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words.” (Berger 2013: 63)

To have the context, one can have it explained (as I’ve needed to above), or one can know it based on experience. The limitation of explanation is that one is still making assumptions on the viewer’s overall cultural knowledge and wider context framework – for some viewers would I need to explain that a fake pineapple ice bucket was a popular home bar accessory in the 1970s? that meeting a soap opera star is somehow impressive? and so on. Context exists within its own context.

Stepping outside of Berger’s point above, an easier reading of an image is possible when the context is known, directly or indirectly. In looking at three of the images above, I am ‘re-seeing’ things I previously saw with my own eyes, through the ‘transparent portal’ of the photograph (Walton 1984); in the other two I am ‘re-living’ scenes that I was in but never saw first hand, only experienced as a photograph.

Others would correctly read the images above based on their knowledge of different aspects of my life:

  • 1977: my immediate family know what the image is about
  • 1989: the other people in the picture know what that one’s about
  • 1992: many people who both know me and have a working knowledge of 1990s soap operas would know what was going on
  • 2001: I don’t think anyone but my wife and me would know the significance
  • 2011: ditto

The importance of providing (or expecting) context to support images is my big takeaway from this fascinating, strangely enjoyable exercise.

Finally, and I know I mentioned this above but it bears repeating: the words provided as context should themselves be subject to scrutiny for their veracity (ref. the 1977 newspaper getting my age wrong). The Berger quote above continues as follows:

And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered.” (Berger: 2013: 63)

So the very act of juxtaposition of image and text increases perceived credibility. One must therefore be alert to the risks of attributing a greater degree of veracity to a photograph based on the accompanying words – and vice versa.


Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

Walton, K.L. (1984), Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism, published in Critical Enquiry 11, (December 1984). Chicago: University of Chicago.

https://www.flickr.com/groups/ocarts/discuss/72157664596100452/72157662472330784/ (accessed 18/02/2016)


Exercise: What makes a document?


Read the post ‘What Makes a Document?’ on WeAreOCA, including all the replies to it, and write your own comment both on the blog page and in your own blog. Make sure that you visit all the links on the blog post.

Make sure your reply is personal and authoritative. Express your opinion on the topic of the blog and substantiate your comments with solid arguments, ideally referring to other contributions to the blog.


The advantage of adding the 63rd comment on this post is that one can stand on the shoulders of the wise commenters that have gone before. The downside is the difficulty in finding something new to add to the discussion!

Clarke offers a definition that framed my thinking:

“‘Document’ means ‘evidence’, and may be traced to documentum, a medieval term for an official paper: in other words, evidence not to be questioned, a truthful account backed by the authority of the law.” (Clarke 1997: 145)

(By the way, I don’t plan to go down the rabbit hole of defining “truth” or “facts”. I think that’s a topic for a different post on another day…)

Jose’s original post closes with the questions: “So is it time or is it context that makes a document? Or is it something else?”


Before looking at time and context I want to address the something else. This may seem blindingly obvious, and it has already been noted by Jim Smith, Matt James, Selina Wallace and others – the content is a primary criterion.

To dispense with the literal answer: yes, any photograph is a document – evidence of… something. A more useful distinction to make is that of a significant or an interesting document (these are of course highly subjective adjectives) – in other words, it matters what the photograph is evidence of.

There is something in the frame – a person, an object, an event, a circumstance, a moment, an interaction – that gets triangulated with context and time to create a document. (To highlight how the content is as crucial as the context and the time, imagine if Don McCullin took a photo six feet to the left of a shell-shocked marine in Vietnam in 1968; the time and context are there but the picture might have been of a table, or a tyre). Maybe the subject matter was implicit in Jose’s original post but I feel it needs emphasising.


Some photographs are instantly documents. The exhibition Conflict – Time – Photography  (Tate Modern 2014-15) took the intriguing curatorial step of arranging the photographs not by date taken but by elapsed time since the event in question occurred (moments later, days later, months later, years later, etc). Luc Delahaye’s Afghanistan and Iraq photographs were evidence of what had just happened, whilst Simon Norfolk’s of similar places were evidence of the aftermath of such events, and Sophie Ristelhueber’s were evidence of the consequences. Some photographers are knowingly creating ‘documents’ at the moment of pressing the shutter. So in this respect, time is an optional factor…

On the other hand and as noted by many commenters, a photograph may not have been considered a document at the moment of being taken, but earned this mantle simply by the passage of time; any photo taken 100 years ago is inherently evidence of how a society existed beyond living memory.


Between these two extremes of the instant document and the eventual document is what you might call the ‘sudden document’: the photograph that at some point in its existence becomes a document due to a change of circumstances: the context is what makes it so. Jose’s Gaddafi balloon falls into this category. But it isn’t simply the passage of time at work here; it’s transformed into a document by some kind of trigger event.

Example: a teenager’s selfie posted to Facebook on a Friday night is just another photograph at first, then becomes a document when he is reported missing on the Saturday; it’s evidence of what he looked like when last seen.

The tricky thing about context and photographs is that one needs to understand the context as a prerequisite to correctly interpreting the meaning of the image. Photographs often therefore need detailed captions in order to explain their significance. Some are easier to read than others: the McCullin Shell-shocked Marine mentioned earlier is hard to misinterpret. On the other hand, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother variously appeared with alternative captions that skewed the reading until its meaning became ‘fixed’ with its famous title (Wells 1997:43-44). You can take many iconic images and recaption them to entirely change their status as a document. Berger puts it best:

In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words.” (Berger 2013: 63)

One could argue that it is therefore the combination of the photograph and the words that constitutes the document; the photograph in isolation is incomplete.


Previous commenter Jane articulated my thoughts very well with the phrase “every photograph has the potential to be a document“. Content and context are the two key drivers that contribute to a photograph being a (significant, interesting) document, with time being an optional third. As the content within the frame is (usually) visually simple enough to ‘consume’, the context (often in the form of accompanying words) becomes the crucial factor contributing to document status.


http://weareoca.com/photography/what-makes-a-document/ (accessed 16/02/2016)

Baker, S and Mavlian, S (eds.) (2014) Conflict – Time – Photography. London: Tate.

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

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

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

Exercise: Realism


Read the first three sections (pp.1–8) of the essay ‘Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism’ by Kendall L Walton.

Write a 200-word reflective commentary in your learning log outlining your views about Walton’s idea of photographic transparency.


Before reading this I imagined it might be concerned with the practical issues of subjectivity, authorial intent, image manipulation etc, but no – it’s more conceptual than that.

Walton starts by debunking a commonly-held view that photography’s claim to ‘realism’ is a function of its indexicality. He points out the ways in which a photograph is self-evidently not identical to the original scene (two-dimensional, motionless, framed, often b/w etc), and adds to this the fact that some paintings and drawings are actually more ‘realistic’ than many photographs. The ‘visual realism’ in photography is therefore relative, not absolute.

Which is the photograph?

Walton then however goes on to explain a way in which photography does have a claim to realism, and it is not its visual resemblance to the subject but rather the fact that “a photograph is always a photograph of something which actually exists” (Walton 1984).

He explains his ‘transparency’ theory thus: what we see in a photograph, we truly see, and the photograph is the portal through which this seeing is possible. On the face of it this is somewhat fanciful, but Walton incrementally expands on the accepted definition of ‘seeing’ using examples such as glasses, mirrors, TV cameras etc – and crucially adds the temporal dimension of ‘seeing’ past events (what is the difference between seeing a TV broadcast live and seeing it pre-recorded?). From this point of view, we see a past reality ‘through’ a photograph in a way that we can never see through a painting. This echoes John Berger’s assertion that “Photographs do not translate from appearances. They quote from them.” (Berger 2013: 66)

So this was my major takeaway from Walton’s essay: before one gets to any problematic issues such as editorial agendas, digital manipulation or images being taken out of context – at bottom, photography is fundamentally about showing (rather than ‘representing’) the ‘real’ in way that other arts forms are not.

Whether ‘real’ = ‘true’ is a different discussion.


Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

Walton, K.L. (1984), Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism, published in Critical Enquiry 11, (December 1984). Chicago: University of Chicago.


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.


Exercise: Defining documentary


Listen to Miranda Gavin talking about documentary photography at:


In your learning log, write a 200-word reflective commentary setting out your reactions to Gavin’s viewpoint.


An unfair summary of this would be that it spend five minutes not defining documentary but explaining why it is difficult to define.

It starts with the terms:

  • documentary
  • photojournalism
  • reportage

Gavin implies that they are confusing or interchangeable; I disagree. Documentary is as an umbrella term of which the others are sub-categories (as are social documentary, street photography etc).

Photojournalism is for illustrating news stories – it’s inherently topical, quick turnaround. Reportage is a more subjective, narrative-led approach where a story can be ‘moulded’ over time. Documentary in a wider sense can be entirely disconnected from current affairs, and self-driven by the documentarian.

Gavin discusses how documentary is changing, e.g. digital technology and the changing gender mix. But these are red herrings: the former brings changes in approach and the latter brings changes in subject matter – these are changes to the kind of work being produced, but do not alter the fundamental characteristics of documentary.

Documentary can be defined not in terms of its aesthetics or subject matter but in terms of its intent:

“Primarily, documentary was thought of as having a goal beyond the production of a fine print. The photographer’s goal was to bring the attention of an audience to the subject of his or her work” (Ohrn 1980, quoted in Wells 2009: 69)

Finally Gavin covers the overlap between documentary and art. I see this as straightforward: what starts as documentary (an intent-based definition) can become art (a consumption-based definition), but the reverse journey is not true.

“Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” (Seluka 1978, quoted in Wells 2009: 73)

This strikes me as a neat counterpart to the Ohrn quote above: documentary is ‘about’ the subject, art is ‘about’ the artist.


Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.

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