Understanding Documentary Photography Through History, Practices & Ethical Dilemmas

Black-white documentary photograph of clam seller in Mulberry Bend, New York City circa 1900-1906, Detroit Publishing Company glass negative

When we speak of documentary photography, in addition to referring to an enormous body of lens-based representations, we mean a system of concepts, practices, institutions, technologies, and modes of receptivity. The term «documentary photography» arose in the early twentieth century, but the idea emerged with the first photographs, and it was grounded in a number of formal and material properties, including the photograph’s realism, its detail and informational qualities, and its indexical connection to its referent, that is, its nature as caused or traced by something real in a specific place and at a particular moment of time. From the beginning, photography seemed like a fundamentally new form of representation, one that usurped some of the representational functions of the traditional visual arts, but which was also less interpretive, and more structurally tied to what appeared to the naked eye. Thus, it was also recognized as providing a new form of visual evidence; a documentation of worldly appearances that was true in ways that painterly representations could never be.

From Elite to Everyday: How Photography Democratized Portraiture

Quickly documentary grew to be an impulse – a set of expectations governing photographers and audiences alike that helped to produce a thriving set of institutions and industries. Documentary’s first domain was portraiture, which it democratized, opening the practice to more people than ever before. The production and dissemination of one’s image helps cohere the self, increase our sense of uniqueness, importance, and complexity, at the same time as it potentially amplifies our powers in society. Before photography, a portrait was something that indicated a person’s status as part of an elite; it was a religious and aristocratic privilege and, later, a bourgeois one.

Documentary portrait of family of ten living in a three-room shack, living room and kitchen combined
© Photo by Russell Lee for the Resettlement Administration. December 1936, Dickens, Iowa

Thanks to photography, however, by the 1870s at the latest, the luxury of owning or giving a representation of one’s self was possible for many other classes as well. From the beginning, portraiture’s evidentiary and artistic aspects were distinguished. In comparison to painted portraits, photographic depictions were often held to be mere mirrors, exact and mechanical representations of a sitter’s external appearances that said little about a person’s character or history. It was also recognized, however, that some portraits captured an individual’s likeness, conveying through lighting, costuming, detail, pose, props, and mise-en-scene an impression of who the person truly was. This artistic aspect of the photographic image, the way its appearances signified a supplement of meaning connected to history and tradition, was linked not only to the complex character of the sitter, but also to the abilities of the photographer, whose vision, knowledge of the visual arts, and command of technique were said to bring out the sitter’s inner nature.

How Documentary Portraits Evolved from Representation to Evidence

Portraiture’s production and reception as a document grew with the rise of ethnographic photography in the second half of the nineteenth century. Serving the growing interest in industrial societies of the United States and Europe for information about the world and the historical past, photographers created images of people from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia-as well as from less developed parts of Europe and North America. These portraits were primarily created and understood as representing different racial, social, and economic types. The individual was not important, but rather the convention or social practice that he or she represented. Photographic appearances were supposed to reveal a more common trait or group identity, and thus photographers often staged their subjects through positioning, props, and wardrobe. Because they believed they knew what they were looking at, the majority of photographic operators had no qualms about using artifice to bring out the sitter’s “essential” characteristics. Although treated as evidence, ethnographic portraiture thus actually helped to produce and promulgate falsehoods and stereotypes, a contradiction that haunts documentary photography.

Photo of Washington policeman Bill Norton measuring the distance between knee and suit at the Tidal Basin bathing beach
© National Photo Co. Col. Sherrill, Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds, issued an order that suits not be over six inches above the knee

With the development of police photography, on the other hand, the documentary portrait became instrumentalized, a means of identification and control. First incorporated by Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) into a searchable archive in the 1880s, the photographic visage was combined with other forms of evidence, such as text and measurements, crime scene photographs, and (later) fingerprints. Unlike ethnographic portraiture, the “mug shot” did not represent a type or convention; instead, it was produced and used as a means of referring to the world and apprehending individuals. Emphasizing a person’s particular appearances as opposed to what they represented, it required a huge systematic organization in order to function. Here, within a larger apparatus of texts, filing cabinets, living individuals, and institutions actively using it, the documentary photograph came into its own as evidence, as a legal record that could prove a fact or authenticate a state of affairs.

The Duality of Landscape and War Photography

The tension inherent in photographic portraiture – between extension (or worldly reference) and artistry (or analogical reference, a sense that the image convincingly conveys a second order of meaning linked to art, literature, and history) – was also present in the other photographic genres in which the documentary impulse thrived. Since photography’s inception, architectural and landscape photographs were produced and consumed for a variety of purposes, both instrumental foreign landmarks as well as archeological finds and images of the picturesque. Likewise, governments sponsored huge archives recording architectural and natural patrimony, often when demolishing the old cultural commonwealth, or while blazing new trails through the landscape. In the United States, survey photographs helped to plan railroad routes, but they were also used as mythic symbols to advocate for westward expansion (and, later, conservation). In the twentieth century, with the growth of aerial photography, the power of landscape and architectural photography expanded. By simultaneously magnifying human vision and reducing the world, aerial photographs increased our abilities to control, manipulate, and even violate our environments. They also desensitized spectators, demonstrating how certain types of photographs produced what Ernst Jilnger called a second or “colder” consciousness.

War photo of the Grand Review of the Army. Units of XX Army Corps, Army of Georgia, passing on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Treasury
© Wet plate negative by Mathew Brady, May 24, 1865, Washington, District of Columbia

The documentary impulse likewise flourished in the genre of war photography since the mid-1850s, a practice that was both a commercial and a state enterprise. Early photographers like Roger Fenton (1819-1869), Mathew Brady (1822-1896), and Felice Beato (1832-1909) could not represent the heat of battle; technical limitations restricted them to shooting things that did not move. Their subjects were the men who fought (represented through portraits taken behind the lines), the modern technologies by which wars were waged, and war’s effects on people and the environment. They also made images of the dead, raising ethical questions that are central to documentary. It was recognized immediately that photographs of corpses have the power to shock and to pierce their viewers with their reality and truth. On the other hand, the dead cannot decline to be photographed, and so in a certain sense they are re-victimized by the photographer, who objectifies them yet again.

War photography portrait of Dead Confederate sharpshooter at the foot of Round Top
© Photograph by Alexander Gardner, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1863

As records of the injured and dead accumulated in the nineteenth century, people realized that repeated viewings could desensitize a person, and potentially reduce one’s empathy. Such photographs were acknowledged to be double-sided instruments – tokens we can use to memorialize as well as to exploit. Like pornography, they objectify people, and as some feared, they seem to provide something like pleasure, a thrill of fear or shock combined with an awareness of our superior position-present at the event, yet safe from harm. Moreover, as suggested by Alexander Gardner’s (1821-1882) sequence of photographs from 1865 depicting the execution of the Lincoln conspirators, the roots of photojournalism also lie in war documentary. And as it developed, war photography produced a multitude of different types of photographic document, from the most evidentiary and instrumental for example, the portraits of nude or partially stripped Civil War soldiers used to record different types of wounds and trauma – to the most symbolic, like Gardner’s and Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s (1840-1882) great photographs of the dead at Gettysburg and Antietam.

From Science to Spectacle: How Photography Revolutionized Perception and Storytelling

The documentary impulse changed again between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the development of chrono-photography. The analysis of human and animal motion conducted by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904), and others after 1870 was based on technological developments such as smaller lenses, faster film stocks, and more accurate shutters – technologies that also helped to support the rise of the stereo- scope industry. In turn, motion studies and other scientific uses of photographic instruments helped to produce a growing awareness of what Walter Benjamin later called “the optical unconscious,” the hidden world of information that certain forms of photographs reveal beneath the everyday visible one.

Kitchen of Ozarks cabin with newspapers on walls purchased for Lake of the Ozarks project
© Photo by Carl Mydans, Resettlement Administration, May 1936, Missouri

Photography, people began to recognize, did not simply document what could be seen by the naked eye. In addition, in conjunction with new forms of illumination (e.g., x-rays) and new optical technologies (e.g., telephoto and macroscopic lenses), the medium helped to extend human perception. Photographs could both reduce and magnify the world, they could slow or speed time, and they could help us see through solid objects. Increasingly, photography became a tool of scientific investigation and demonstration, helping researchers to discern patterns in nature as well as to reproduce and disseminate their data and results. Photography was also assimilated into multiple industries, in the form of blueprints, identification cards and company records, illustrated instruction manuals, survey and architectural photography, and eventually Taylorist efficiency studies.

After 1900, an increasing awareness developed about the many differences between photography and movie, with the photograph being taken as significantly more interpretative or metaphoric than the cinematic shot. In contrast to “life-like” moving pictures, photographs were “frozen,” deathly, and more obviously incomplete. However, like film, photography could be staged, turning an indexical representation into a simulation of the real world from which it originated. The rise of filmed and photographed fiction thus promoted the widespread recognition that photography could dissemble just as easily as show the truth.

Documentary portrait of Sun-Times copy editor Dave Karno in the tobacco-friendly newsroom of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper
© Photo by Mike Rito, August 4, 1954, Chicago. 4×5 acetate negative

Photography’s documentary function also changed as it became disseminated through illustrated books, magazines, and newspapers worldwide. Catering to the ideological and consumer needs of industrial nations such as the United States, Germany, England, and France, photographs began to operate as important components of “news” or “current events.” Even more than the great newspapers of the nineteenth century, the illustrated press helped to define a sense of nationhood as well as more specific social and political values. Moreover, because of the mass market and, concomitantly, a less literate readership, the values and concepts perpetuated by the illustrated press could be more open to ideological manipulation. Increasingly, documentary photography was used to create what Roland Barthes called “myths,” messages that stabilized the social and political status quo, that concealed ideology, and that represented historically contingent attitudes and conditions as natural and unchanging. Through idealization and repetition, even the baldest lies could be made to seem both fundamental and essential; and the photographic document, increasingly embedded in a textual frame, helped to “naturalize” falsehoods, affirm their truth and existence.

With the rise of the illustrated press, a new cult of celebrity also developed. Portraits were consumed, not just of political and cultural figures, but also of actors and athletes. There was also a burgeoning of subcultures. Lens-based media began to promote a new cultivation of personality and identity; greater visibility and interconnection through the media allowed like-minded individuals to find one another, particularly in urban contexts. Increasingly, images and texts were combined to present an ever more complex representation of people and societies. And with the flourishing of photojournalism in the 1920s, individuals became accustomed to seeing and reading simultaneously, an activity that comprised part of a new form of (synthetic) modern perception that often did not consciously distinguish the different poles of its activity.

Black-white portrait of L.M. Schulstad, traveling salesman for hardware company, at home with his family
© Acetate negative by John Vachon. November 1940, Aberdeen, South Dakota

In the 1920s and 1930s, avant-garde artists and intellectuals in Germany, Russia, and Eastern Europe further expanded documentary’s potential. Alexander Rodchenko (1891-1956) and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) used radical angles, cropping, anti-naturalistic darkroom techniques, and different strategies of photomontage to make portraits and architectural photographs that destabilized ordinary perception and encouraged their audiences to reimagine their worlds. Photomontage, as theorists like Benjamin and Sergei Tretyakov (1892-193 7) recognized, defamiliarized the everyday, breaking open the visual field and making what appeared seem more like writing or analysis. Through montage, the photographer did not just present the facts, but, rather, he or she also showed the meaning and the social tendencies expressed by those facts. And thanks to photography, more individuals (e.g., workers) would now become the producers of documentary narratives of their own lives.

How Documentary Photography Became a Tool for Social Change

The modern concept of “documentary” emerged in the late 1920s, when the term began to be applied to both photographs and motion pictures. Developed by John Grierson (1898-1972), documentary combined truthful and staged aspects. Photographic images, he believed, promised a more faithful rendition of reality than ever before. At the same time, however, they also had to be shaped: The lens-based document was taken from a particular point of view; it was edited; and it was ultimately assembled into a narrative form. Documentary photography emerged with the growth of the welfare state and the phenomenon of industrialized war; and its mission was to serve the increasing need on the part of democratic governments to justify their social and political policies to the common man, who was also documentary’s primary subject. At the same time, documentarians were not simple propagandists for the state, but rather artists who discerned central patterns of thought and feeling that were emerging in democratic societies. Finding subjects that embodied these new values, the documentary photographer was supposed to produce narratives that would resist fascism and totalitarianism and promote mass identification with the new public goods of liberalism.

Black-white documentary photograph of Family of Mrs. Mette making flowers in a very dirty tenement
© Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, December 1911

As it was used by historians of photography in the wake of Grierson’s conceptualization, “documentary” initially referred to photographs taken by figures like Jacob Riis (1849-1914), Lewis Hine (1874-1940), and Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) for progressive or liberal publications and organizations. Riis was a pioneering “muckraking” journalist, who used photography in the 1880s and 1890s to document living conditions in New York slums as illustrations for his newspaper articles, books, and public lectures advocating housing reform. An immigrant himself, Riis recognized the photograph’s ability to transcend language differences and educational levels as well as its power to inspire identification and influence social change. Hine likewise employed the documentary photograph to publicize the experience of less fortunate groups – penniless immigrants, child laborers, displaced people after World War I, and industrial workers of all types. Serving institutions like the National Child Labor Committee and the American Red Cross between the 1900s and the 1930s, he endeavored, like Grierson, to represent the humanity of the common man, the systemic dangers of the industrialized and rapidly internationalizing modern world, and the positive aspects of labor and social cooperation.

Black-white film photo of morning mail at the Mineral King cooperative farm, Old ranch house in the background to be replaced by modern structures suitable to community farming
© Medium format acetate negative by Dorothea Lange for the FSA, November 1938, Tulare County, California

Responding to war and economic crisis, this initial concept of documentary photography modeled the practice as a large-scale endeavor embedded within textual and institutional frameworks and distributed through a wide variety of media. This traditional concept is perhaps best exemplified by the work of Lange and other photographers for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the 1930s and 1940s. Working directly for the U.S. government, and coordinated by a central manager, Roy Stryker, who determined their themes and subjects, FSA photographers were tasked with finding images that would help to support Roosevelt’s New Deal. Lange’s photographs remain famous because they emphasized drama and foregrounded narrative and expressive details. As a result, she was a particularly effective FSA photographer, taking iconic pictures of approved subjects that inspired sympathy and identification and helped promote a liberal worldview. Like Robert Capa (1913-1954), the great photojournalist and founder of the Magnum Photo Agency, Lange’s power also came from her propensity for capturing situations of extreme tension or crisis.

Evocative Black and White Art for Your Walls

Earlier in this article, we had a look at the historical significance of photographs and the fascinating field of documentary photography. For more than a century, this genre has captured the essence of reality. In addition to documenting history, these striking images inspire and tell stories. Fine art photographer Alexander Kladov uses a series of monochrome prints to express these same emotions and stories. The finest materials and printing techniques are used to meticulously create each print, giving you a timeless heirloom. Discover the drama and serenity of the natural world with our long exposure landscape prints. The vastness and grandeur of nature is captured in shades of gray. Choose the perfect piece to complement your décor.

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