Reportage within a wider documentary genre has become synonymous with photography with more of a personal interpretation rather than laying claim absolute objectivity.
John Szarkowski, curator of the ‘New Documents’ exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1967) set out a core message that the time where photo-documentary was a platform for shining a light on the problems of the world and bringing about change and reform had passed and a more personalised and subjective perspective had taken over. Photographers could make their own images of the real world and those images were not necessarily carrying any direct political or philosophical messages. “What is held in common is the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look without theorizing.” Szarkowski, J. (1967).
Examples of reportage would be the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson whose concept of the ‘Decisive Moment’ was a subjective photographic perspective and theory as oppose a natural and absolute objective fact. Within the decisive moment was the implication that the ‘moment in time’ captured in the image actually had a greater, wider and more significant truth behind it.
Henri Cartier-Bresson took the image above in 1954 when he visited Moscow to see how life was for everyday Russians under communism. Read the following article from the Observer about Cartier Bresson’s visit to Moscow and see how important and revered reportage was during the mid 20th century.
Conrad, P (2011) 24/4/2011 ‘The Big Picture: Henry Cartier-Bresson in 1950s’. The Observer.
A different style of reportage might be Nan Goldin’s work’ ‘The Ballard of Sexual Dependency’, (1986). In this she takes images of her personal circle of friends and acquaintances from the New York scene in the late 1970s and 80s. Whilst the images depict marginalised people, habits and behaviour Goldin was cast by herself as an insider telling not just theirs but her story as well. This insider approach takes on an almost confessional form and seems to change the aesthetics of the images creating a much more intimate experience. (la Grange, A. 2005) Goldin herself was inspired by Larry Clark’s work ‘Tulsa’ (1971). (O’Hagen, S. 2014).
Such projects are highly personal and have continued to lead documentary away from the previously commonly held belief that photography is a totally true objective medium and representation of the real world. In an essay describing the work of William Eggleston it was said, “A picture after all is only a picture, a concrete kind of fiction, not to be admitted as hard evidence or as the quantifiable data of social scientists.” Szarkowski, J. (1976).
Goldin, N (1988) ‘Matt and Lewis in the tub kissing, Cambridge’, from the ‘The Ballard of Sexual Dependency’. Image taken from the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston website, see. https://www.icaboston.org/art/nan-goldin/matt-and-lewis-tub-kissing-cambridge (accessed 11/02/2016)
Conrad, P (2011) 24/4/2011 ‘The Big Picture: Henry Cartier-Bresson in 1950s’. The Observer. Image taken from the article see
O’Hagen, S (2014) ‘Nan Goldin: I wanted to get high from a really early age’. The Observer. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/23/nan-goldin-photographer-wanted-get-high-early-age (accessed 11/12/2016)
Szarkowski, J. (1967), ‘New Documents’ taken from exhibition press release which can be read in full at
Szarkowski, J. Essay (1976), William Eggleston’s Guide. Second edition, 2002, reprinted 2014, Malaysia: Infinity Press.