This is a rather ambitious title for a project – it’s certainly beyond my wit to define documentary – and fortunately that’s not what’s being asked of me. I simply have to give a 200-word reflective response to this video: http://www.weareoca.com/photography/what-is-documentary-photography/
By happy chance I discovered that i had already responded to this on the OCA blog when it was initially posted by the OCA – as follows:
It seems to me there is a continuum from documentary through to creative as Miranda implicitly defines them, and that fine art is around the middle of that continuum i.e. it has elements of both. If you want a visual analogy it’s like the electromagnetic spectrum with radio waves at one end and gamma rays at the other and in the middle is visible light
It is a practical issue for Miranda because she’s trying to lay out a magazine – is it an issue for the rest of us? I think the answer is probably yes, because in trying to make sense of a new body of work it is helpful to have a general understanding of the context, history and influences which inform that work. The category is a helpful shorthand for that, in much the same way as pop and orchestral are useful shorthand for certain music genres.
Where it becomes unhelpful is where people try to pigeonhole artists so that they find it hard to develop, or where they constrain their own understanding by seeing the categories as stereotype rather than shorthand.
Looking at my notes from the video I can see I still agree with the final two paras – the first seems a little bit of a long-winded way to make a simple point. Here’s my current draft – and I maintain it is only a draft, because it’s entirely possible that by the end of the course I will have another view again.
What does the label “documentary” mean and does it matter? It is a practical issue for Miranda because she’s trying to lay out a magazine – but her categories encapsulate the problem. “Creative” for commissioned work – but what if we commission some documentary work? And, as she notes, some photographers we might think of as fine art prefer the label documentary and vice versa.
Is it an issue for the rest of us? The answer is probably yes. For the viewer it helps make sense of new work if they understand the context, history and influences. The category is a helpful shorthand for that. It is also helpful for the photographer in marketing terms – in finding the niche that will ensure our work gets the notice you want for it.
It becomes unhelpful when used to pigeonhole artists so that they find it hard to develop, or where they constrain their own understanding by seeing the categories as more important than the work, or where they conclude that a particular subject cannot be “documentary” (The video makes no mention of subject matter).
Ultimately, however, good work stands on its own – without the support of a label.