In many senses all un-modified photography – and some modified or staged photography - is documentary, in as much as the camera records what we choose to point it towards when we press the shutter. The resultant photograph is a document we can subsequently examine for meaning, mnemonic or simple research. However, documentary as a term was first coined by John Grierson in about 1924 to refer to films that were considered to be in opposition to the fantasies produced by Hollywood. This does, of course, set aside the inconvenient fact that the films he first referred to as documentaries, such as Nanuck of the North were almost as much fantasy as “How the West Was Won”.
Setting semantics aside perhaps the earliest work we might recognise as documentary was How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis – a study of the underclasses in New York in the late 19th century. Like much of the “documentary” of the time it had, as an objective, the aim of pricking the conscience of the middle classes to do something about the lot of the less well off and this has been a dominant theme of much documentary work throughout the history of photography. Lewis Hine, the American Farm Security Administration photographers and Bill Brandt have all worked in this mode.
A parallel mode has been war photography, which started with the works of Fenton and Beato in the late 1800s and progressed through the 20th century wars with notable achievement such as Capa’s Death of a Spanish Infantryman, and the Vietnam war work of Don McCullin right through to current times with the works of Luc Delahaye and the late Tim Hetherington.
Documentary photography also found use in studying the “other” – people not like the generally white middle class men who took the photographs. Sometimes this was done under the guise of science – such as photos of local people in the far flung reaches of Empire, or people in prisons – but the end result was generally read as evidence that the photographer (and people like them) were in some way superior. Understandably, much modern criticism is directed at this approach, although a cynic might suggest that all we are doing is trying to prove we are superior to the “other” who took these photos in a different time and place.
A somewhat more recent development in documentary photography has been the coverage of banal subjects – everyday life, mundane objects and detritus – which might be seen, I think, as a reaction against the ever rosier views of society portrayed in the commercial media. I can see a trail here that leads from Brassai, Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz, through Walker Evans and on through Friedlander, Winogrand, Egglestone and Shore up to the present day.
During this history a mode of working has developed which plays to the alleged authenticity of photos as documents – stereotypical documentary style involves the apparent absence of aesthetic considerations, black and white imagery and an absence of obvious post-processing. Another typical characteristic is that documentary photography almost never seems to cover positive events, or portray people rising above their difficulties. I noted this latter tendency at Format13 in Derby – the galleries were full of the photographic equivalent of misery biographies, offering only criticism of the system, and no hope.
It is also notable that most documentary work for most of its history concentrates on people – unsurprisingly – and it is only recently that objects appear to have achieved some narrative value.
Recent developments include the staged documentary such as the work of Bourouissa, the migration of documentary images in to the gallery (e.g. Misrach’s Cancer Alley) and the adoption of a more subjective approach – as exemplified by Moriyama’s images of Tokyo and Goldin’s diary style photography of the life of herself and her friends.
As this is intended as a simple framework on which to hang my future explorations I’m going to bring this entry to a close by noting a couple of areas of personal interest for future investigation. These include – use of objects to tell a story or make a point, inevitably perhaps, the history of documentary in Japanese photography and the use of alternative forms to display documentary photography, which might perhaps help to convey additional information or engage with viewers in a more meaningful way.