Documentary Photography: Characteristics, History (2023)

Erich Salomon (1886-1944)

The most talented photographer working for Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung was a discreet self-effacing Jewish doctor, Erich Salomon. In the early 1930s Europe was a hive of international conferences. Politicians met in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and Rome, hoping to avoid impending conflict, trying to set up a League of Nations. Conferences between diplomats and statesmen were held behind closed doors - the only photographs that people saw were formal wooden groups posed for the Press.

Salomon had a tiny Ermanox plate camera. Disguising himself in evening dress and exploiting his ability to speak seven languages, Salomon politely gatecrashed many conferences. He discreetly passed among famous politicians, taking photographs by available indoor lighting, with the camera half hidden under his jacket. His unique sets of pictures conveyed the general atmosphere and showed the personalities of those taking part at unguarded moments, engrossed in after-dinner discussions. They contrasted sharply with the blinding flash and smoke which everyone associated with cameramen and made them an unwelcome nuisance.

For the magazine reader this new form of political reporting gave a real feeling of 'being there'. What were these people talking about - what were they plotting? Other photojournalists followed Salomon's lead, mostly with smaller cameras such as the Leica which allowed pictures to be taken in quicker succession and gave greater depth of field. Sadly Salomon was to die in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz extermination camp.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004)

Probably the most famous and original of all 'candid' reportage photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson originally aimed to become a painter. He started taking photographs in the early 1930s when he bought a Leica and found it a marvellous device for capturing what he describes as 'the decisive moment' in everyday situations. In other words he maintained there is one fleeting fraction of a second in which the significance of an event can be summed up and expressed in the strongest possible visual composition.

Cartier-Bresson was mainly a photographer of people - but not as a social reformer or news event reporter, simply as observer of the passing scene. His pictures document ordinary people with warmth and humour, never influencing his subjects but showing them at moments of extraordinary intensity. Typically he would turn his back on a newsworthy event - procession, celebration, etc. - to concentrate on the reactions of onlookers.

Cartier-Bresson never used flash or special lenses, and the whole of each negative is always printed without cropping. He photographed the people of most countries, but excelled at showing fellow Europeans. His pictures were used in all the most important magazines, and many books for more than 60 years. They were also purchased and exhibited by many of the world's art galleries.

After World War II, in 1947, Cartier-Bresson and photographers Robert Capa and David Seymour formed a picture agency called "Magnum". Run as a co-operative and owned by the photographers themselves, Magnum has members in various countries. It sells pictures to publishers of all kinds and has become the most famous photojournalistic agency of its kind in the world.

Bill Brandt (1904-1983)

One of Britain's most distinguished photographers was also working as a photojournalist during the late 1930s. Bill Brandt was born in London and in 1929 learnt photography in Paris as assistant to Man Ray (Emmanuel Radinski) (1890-1976). Reportage work was the new most challenging area for young photographers, and Brandt was influenced by the work of Cartier-Bresson and others. He returned to Britain during the depression years, producing pictures of the industrial North which made pointed comparisons with other richer levels of British society. He was also an exponent of Pictorialism with a series of staged photos of suburbia.

Brandt's work appeared as picture books such as The English at Home and A Night in London. He also undertook many Picture Post assignments (where his pictures often appeared anonymously as was common at that time). Later Brandt was to specialize in landscapes, and books of original experimental photographs such as distorted images of the human form.

During the war years (1939-1945) most photojournalists worked for organizations such as the US Information Service, or the British Ministry of Information, or were drafted into Air Force or Army photographic units. The British Army Film and Photography Unit produced over 137,000 documentary pictures of offensives; there was an equivalent organization in Germany called the PBK (German Propaganda Corp).

Robert Capa (1913-54)

Robert Capa, who hated war and tried to depict its futility, became a renowned war photographer. Like many war photographers, both Capa and fellow Magnum founder David Seymour (1911-1956) were to die in action a few years later - Capa covering conflicts in Indochina, and Seymour in Egypt.

Rise and Fall of Picture Magazines

In some ways picture magazines of the 1930s and 1940s were the modern equivalent of the stereoscope cards of the nineteenth century. At their best they offered the ordinary person a window on the world - coverage of great events, a peep behind the scenes, a day sharing the lives of famous people - in greater detail than newspaper press photographs could ever provide. They could also make readers more aware of the gap between what life is, and might be.

Of course, the magazines always contained a great deal of purely entertainment material such as cute pictures of animals, stills from new Hollywood movies, the latest fashion craze. But they could also be powerful moulders of public opinion on more vital issues. Unlike today's colour supplements most of them ran occasional crusades on issues like bad housing, pollution, help for the disadvantaged, and so on. They took sides rather than going for bland neutral coverage. This made a lively and much more interesting magazine but put responsibility on the shoulders of photojournalists, writers and editors. The production team had to be well informed and able to present a reasoned argument rather than propaganda. They were operating possibly the most persuasive visual medium in the days before television - for cinema newsreels were mostly flippant and quickly forgotten.

Picture magazines influenced each other too. Stefan Lorant (1901-97), a Hungarian Jew and editor of the Munich rival of Berliner Illustrierte left Germany under Nazi pressure. A few years later in 1938 he became Picture Post's first editor. Together with photographers Kurt Hutton (born Kurt Hubschmann) (1893–1960), Felix Man (1893-1985) and other European refugees, he brought the use of 35 mm cameras and the ideas and layout of German picture magazines to Britain. They filled Picture Post (and its rival, Illustrated) with action pictures and features which looked very different to traditional British weeklies like Tatler or Illustrated London News. In America other European immigrant photographers such as Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995) and Robert Capa made outstanding contributions to LIFE. In Britain, Larry Burrows (1926-71) was the outstanding photojournalist for LIFE.

Picture magazines thrived during the conflict and excitement of World War II, despite the shortage of paper. They seemed to sell everything they could print and had enormous status. However, by the 1950s Picture Post had begun to lose its sense of purpose. Even the novel use of several regular pages of colour could not revive it. Illustrated closed in 1958, Picture Post in 1957, Look in 1971. LIFE lingered on in more-or-less its original weekly form until 1972.

Television had taken over as a faster, more universal method of visually communicating news and features; it was also stealing most of the advertisers. By the 1970s photojournalism had lost a lot of its influence, although it remained in magazines such as Stern (Germany) and Paris Match (France), and in a number of expensively produced company magazines for the oil industry, etc.

Distortion and Manipulation of Images

The way the world is presented by documentary photography is often distorted in one form or another - it is almost impossible to be completely objective and truthful. As equipment and materials improved they gave greater freedom to decide what and when pictures were to be taken. And once photographs could appear in publications the photographer's choice of moment was followed up by decisions on which picture(s) were or were not to be used, the ways captions were written, and how pictures were related one to another across the page.

Half-tone reproduction gave documentary photography a huge audience and made it influential. People soon wanted to manipulate such a powerful medium. Photographers began doing this by posing their subjects, and choosing the viewpoint, lighting and moment in time; editors by selection and presentation of their results.

Manipulation need not always be bad. For Dr Barnardo's before-and-after pictures, boys were usually dressed up in rags to recreate the 'before' situation. One of the FSA photographers was severely criticized when it was discovered he had shifted a cow's skull several feet from a patch of scrub grass to make a stronger picture. However, neither really distorted the truth of the general situation they were trying to show - they simply communicated it in a visually stronger way.

On the other hand, from the early days of picture newspapers it has been normal practice to file photographs of prominent people looking confident, defeated, aggressive, stupid, etc. Such pictures are pulled out and reproduced as press portraits to suit the mood of the moment, when that person is either favoured or disliked. Again, an editor can easily select from a photographer's picture series an image he would normally reject. By adding a headline and caption he gives it strong meaning.

People gradually realized the publicity they could gain through photography. A demonstration often becomes violent when professional photographers or TV crew are seen to be present. In one extreme instance in the late 1960s a public execution was held over for 12 hours, as the evening light was too poor for the press to take pictures. The concerned photographer therefore has to ask him or herself whether something they document would have happened that way had he not been present? Should a wide-angle lens be used, which makes close-ups of people with their arms out look more violent? Would grainy film and dark printing make bad living conditions look worse?

As can be seen, the more strongly the photographer or editor feels about a particular situation the more tempting it becomes to present it in a powerful way. Strictly objective recording is almost impossible - in any case it often gives cluttered pictures which confuse what is being shown. But then, too much concern for clarity of presentation can distort the real events. In practice documentary photography has to function somewhere between these extremes.

Contemporary Documentary Photography

Since the mid-60s or thereabouts, the era of Postmodernist art has witnessed a widening range of documentary camerawork, in keeping with the advent of globalization, as well as changing moral views and increased social fragmentation. Famous postmodernist artists who have produced noteworthy documentary photographs, include: Diane Arbus (1923-1971) whose harrowing black-and-white photos of freaks, eccentrics and marginal individuals in New York, proved too controversial for many art critics; Bernd and Hilla Becher, who chronicled disappearing styles of industrial architecture; Garry Winogrand (1928–1984) and Lee Friedlander (b.1934) who focused on America's cultural landscape; Robert Adams (b.1937) - whose photos appeared in the seminal 1975 exhibition entitled "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" - addresses the outdoor landscape; William Eggleston (born 1939), one of the pioneers of colour documentary photography; and Nan Goldin (b.1953) whose contribution to contemporary art includes numerous series of documentary photos on deviant groups and feminist issues. See also works by Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Stephen Shore.

Famous Documentary Photographers

Here is a short list of some of the greatest exponents of documentary-style photography, listed in chronological order:

Roger Fenton (1819-69)
Pioneer war photographer.

Mathew Brady (1822-96)
Photographed the American Civil War.

John Thomson (1837-1921)
Pioneer social photographer noted for "Street Life in London" (1877).

Tim O'Sullivan (1840-82)
Pioneer wilderness photographer of the American West.

William Jackson (1843-1942)
Influential landscape photographer notably of Wyoming and the Yellowstone region.

Jacob Riis (1849-1914)
Famous for his pioneering social documentary photographs of New York slums, especially his series "How The Other Half Lives" (1890).

Eugene Atget (1857-1927)
Noted for his archive of shots taken of buildings in Paris.

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)
Famous for his exposure of child labour working conditions in West Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, and elsewhere.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965)
Precisionist painter noted for photographing the Ford Motor company car plant in Michigan.

Roman Vishniac (1897-1990)
Jewish-American photographer who catalogued Jewish life before World War II.

Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
All famous for their portrait photos of Depression-era individuals and families.

Ansel Adams (1902-84)
Famous for his 'wilderness photography of the American West.

Ken Domon (1909-90)
Renowned for his photos of survivors of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, and child poverty in the coal-mining community in Chikuho, Kyushu.

Hans Namuth (1915-90)
Famous for his photographic series on artists like Jackson Pollock, the Cubist Stuart Davis; the pop artists Andy Warhol, George Segal and Roy Lichtenstein; the minimalist sculptor Richard Serra and others.

Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Notorious for her photos of freaks.

Robert Frank (b.1924)
Renowned for his series entitled "The Americans" (1959)

Larry Burrows (1926-71)
Photojournalist for LIFE magazine noted for photo-essays on the Vietnam war.

Don McCullin (b.1935)
Highly respected photographer of individuals caught up in war zones.

Steve McCurry (b.1950)
Best known as a National Geographic photo artist.

Nan Goldin (b.1953)
Feminist photographer noted for her ground-breaking work among minority social groups.

Nadav Kander (b.1961)
Best known for his blunt series of photos of the Yangste River, in China.

Social documentary photographs are regularly shown in some of the best galleries of contemporary art across America.

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