The term documentary photography was not widely used at the time when the sociologist Lewis Hine photographed the poor working conditions of children and immigrants in America to raise awareness and bring about social reform. Before this point the whole concept of photography was regarded as documentary by it’s very nature so there was no reason to differentiate.
It was only when certain photographers started to create more artistic representations did the need for a distinction arise so the term ‘documentary’ can be regarded in almost a historical sense when “filmmaker John Grierson, who in 1926 described a film by Robert Flaherty as having ‘documentary value’. Like Grierson, Flaherty made films about the lives of real people, including Man of Aran (1934) based on a family struggling to survive the harsh conditions on the west coast of Ireland. Flaherty also used a high degree of fiction, constructing and staging; for example, the family members in Man of Aran were not related and many scenes were performed specifically for the camera.” (Bull, 2009, p108).
After Grierson’s comments documentary was seen as way of understanding the issues of society and could be used as a catalyst for reform. Such motivation lay behind the government funded (FSA) Farm Security Administration which set out to document the plight of farm workers during the American depression of the 1930s. Photographer Dorothy Lange took a photograph, which became known as the Migrant Mother, and the image has become the defining image in the critical debate around the motives, integrity and effects of documentary work. In 1978 the subject of the image Florence Thompson, still destitute and living in a trailer park in Modesto, California, was asked about the photo. She said that it had done her no good at all. Dorothy Lange was able to use this project as a springboard to securing her reputation in history as an influential documentary photographer with her work kept by the New York Museum of Modern Art. For further reading please see case study: ‘The image of the Migrant Mother’, (Wells, 2009, p39-49).
In Martha Rosler’s essay ‘In, around, and after thoughts (on documentary photography) she questions, “why documentary photographers still want to photograph the Bowery (a skid row in New York) when it is no longer possible to justify photographing it either in terms of helping or exposing it’s occupants.” (la Grange, 2013, p113).
In Rosler’s own words, “documentary photography has come to represent the social conscience of liberal sensibility presented in visual imagery……photo documentary as a public genre had it’s moment in the ideological climate of developing state liberalism and the attendant reform movements of the early twentieth century progressive era……and withered some time after the Second World War. Documentary, with it’s muckraking associations, preceded the myth of journalistic objectivity and was partly stangled by it….victim photography in which the victims, insofar as they are now victims of the camera (that is of the photographer).” (Rosler, 1981).
Within this critical environment perhaps the best outcome for documentary in photography was the development that John Szarkowski set out in his New Documents exhibition at New York’s MoMA in 1967 when he set photographers free of social reform and recording the world in favour of offering a personal interpretation and understanding together with the opportunity to look and not theorise. For a full reading of the original press release see
Lange, D. (1936) Migrant Mother, image taken from http://www.artsconnected.org (accessed 7/02/2016)
Bull, S (2010). Photography. Abingdon: Routledge
La Grange, A (2005). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (9th ed.) Oxford:Focal Press
Rosler, M. (1981) In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) http://everydayarchive.org/awt/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/rosler-martha_in-around-afterthoughts.pdf (accessed 8/02/2016)
Wells,L. (2009). Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th ed.) Abingdon: Routledge