Documentary Photography - Life as Art | Widewalls (2023)

Top Lists, Photography

June 27, 2016

Angie Kordic

In her monumental 1977 collection of essays dedicated to the photographic medium, Susan Sontag wrote: ”Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.” If we were to define documentary photography, this statement might just be the right description, because in its essence, it is a form of image-making aiming to chronicle the events and the environments in order to tell a story and send a message. Through their powerful narration and visual impact, documentary photographs draw our attention to real-life socio-political situations of a certain moment, from which photographers extract an important moment and capture it with their camera. Differing from photojournalism, which concentrates on breaking news events, and street photography, that immortalizes interesting instant of everyday urban happenings, documentary photography usually focuses on ongoing issues and stories, such as environmental change and human rights. Although it is seen as professional reportage, documentary photographers can create projects for personal use, or even for artistic purposes.

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A Brief History

The first examples of documentary photography can be traced back to shortly after the invention of the medium, in the works of British photographer Philip Delamotte, who recorded important events such as the disassembly of Crystal Palace, or in those of Matthew Brady, who covered the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865. Also in the United States, government photographers like Timothy O’Sulivan and George B. Barnard created a huge body of work for the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories in the following decade, leaving an archive of an immense historical significance. As the photographic techniques evolved, it became easier to insert photographs in magazines, newspapers and books, which brought a new era in the medium’s short, yet rich history until that point. Starting with photographer Lewis Hine and journalist and police reporter Jacob Riis, these publications brought attention to problems like famine and poverty, and other issues that were usually neglected. In the first half of the 20th century, particularly during the Great Depression, creators like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans documented the American society as part of the Farm Security Administration, still one of the most relevant projects today. The importance of this kind of image-making was also reflected in the popularity of picture-filled publications such as LIFE, TIME and Look magazines, although their fame became to fade with the arrival of television in the 1950s, eventually vanishing almost completely by the late 1970s. Today, the long-term perspective of photo documentations are still highly appreciated, not just by both physical and digital journalism but also by respected art institutions.

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How Real is the Reality of Documentary Photography ?

When it comes to faithfully capturing reality, documentary photography is considered the closest form of image-making that could achieve it. Indeed, its photographers are far more than just passive observers of the social scene of their moment in time; they are trained professionals who find the most effective way to communicate the view before them. However, it is important to establish the fact that this particular view is the one of the authors themselves - meaning that for documentary photography it is almost impossible to be completely objective and truthful. While it is indisputable that the photographic documentation has had a great influence in encouraging social change and reshaping public opinion on certain matter by presenting us with striking imagery of our society, it is also true that these same photographs are often accompanied by questions about whether they were manipulated or staged, in order to achieve that stunning visual result. Today, the biggest news agencies like Reuters, or the acclaimed World Press Photo competition, have strict rules on what can and, more importantly, cannot be done to a documentary photograph (this includes, cropping, color or contrast manipulation, as well as the direction of the scenery and the subjects within).

As these rules stand to reassure us of the reality of a photo, there is no way to eliminate the personal views of the photographer, which ultimately turns documentary photo-making into a form of art with a strong determination of telling a compelling journalist's story. Below, we present you the finest examples of professional visual storytelling through history.

Documentary Photography - Life as Art | Widewalls (3)Documentary Photography - Life as Art | Widewalls (4)Editors’ Tip: 100 Photographs That Changed the World

LIFE thinks outside the box in this book. Can a still image change the way people feel and act concerning the place they live in? It surely can, often has, and still does today. The power of pictures is celebrated in this portfolio of the most forceful still images of all time. Did Marilyn Monroe's pinup change everything? Did Harry Benson's photography of the Beatles deplaning in New York in 1964 alter our cultural focus? The pictures in this book are sometimes beautiful, often striking, and undeniably powerful. On occasion, our arguments are provocative, even controversial. How do we view 9/11? Abu Ghraib? The murders long ago in Mississippi so recently brought to justice? We view these things, not in a political sense, but in the way pictures spoke the story. A fascinating volume, brought up to date.

Jacob Riis - Bandits' Roost, 1890

An important aspect in analysing a documentary photograph is the historical context of both the image and its creator. In this 1890 example by Jacob A. Riis, we witness a dramatic urban scene for the very first time - an alley in New York City, described as the breaking ground for disorder and criminal behaviour. How did the photographer get them to pose for him? Who are the people in the background, if the ones in the front are the supposed criminals? There are children, women, laundry hung out to dry; nothing in this image, except for its caption, leads us to believe there is a devious story behind it all. Nevertheless, the photographer revealed the truth, and this truth soon became an acclaimed newspaper story and a book entitled How the Other Half Lives - an indictment of the living conditions of immigrant workers in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood.

Alfred Stieglitz - The Steerage, 1907

The father of modernist photography, Alfred Stieglitz created his groundbreaking The Steerage in 1907. Looking at it today, we see a vintage photograph of men and women from the lower-class section of a steamer, which we find out was going from New York to Bremen in Germany. However, at the time, this was the first example of artistic modernism which abandoned the idea that photographs should look like paintings and began establishing photography as a medium in its own right. Dealing with gender and class inequality and at the same time carefully constructing the geometric composition of the image, Alfred Stieglitz captured reality and proclaimed it art, with the help of the legendary arts and literary magazine 291 and an art gallery of the same name.

Eugene de Salignac - Brooklyn Bridge Painters, 1914

Officially called Brooklyn Bridge showing painters on suspenders, this photograph is the best-known image of Eugene de Salignac, a city employee who was in charge of documenting major New York structures during the early 20th century. Working for the Department of Bridges between 1906 and 1934, he managed to capture the painting of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was 31 years old at the time this picture was taken, in 1914. It is widely believed that this photo was staged, given the relaxed posing of the workers. What is also evident is that de Salignac drew some inspiration from another prominent street photographer with an extraordinary eye for detail, Paul Strand, who isolated and immortalized the geometric abstract imagery of New York City in sublime contrast.

Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother, 1936

One of the most recognized faces in the American history is the one of Migrant Mother Florence Owens Thompson and her children, taken by Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange. It comes from a series of photographs that she took of the family in 1936 in California, during a month-long trip of photographic migratory farm labor around the state, following the Great Depression. This is a frequent practice in documentary photography: the author takes multiple images of the same event or situation, and the one with the greatest visual impact and/or the one which recounts it in the most comprehensive way gets to be the main image of the project. In this case, is it the desperate look of the Migrant Mother while her children embrace her inside a precarious tent.

Robert Capa - The Falling Soldier, 1936

Although war photography is mostly linked to the immediacy of photojournalism, some photographers like Robert Capa employed their technical skills for long-term projects too. The Falling Soldier, also known as The Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936, was considered to be the greatest photograph ever taken, because of the unsettling, almost unbelievable portrayal of someone’s death, especially during a combat. Taken during the Spanish Civil War, the image was later disputed because of its unclear location and the identity of the subject, as well as the discovery of staged photographs taken at the same time and place by Robert Capa. The photographer explained he took the picture by accident while in a trench, by holding his camera above his head and pointing it toward the unknown.

Robert Frank - The Americans, 1958

It is not just one photo, it is an entire book of them. A publication which still represents one of the most important bodies of work of the past century, Robert Frank’s The Americans is a gem of Post-war American photography, notable for their brilliant views of all layers of society. It was the result of a Guggenheim Fellowship that the photographer won, and in 1955 he traveled across the United States for a series of road trips and social documentations. His images were technically imperfect: blurry, grainy and sloppy in general, yet their approach was direct, thus revealing the rawness and honesty of the people and places he photographed. The book received harsh criticism in the beginning, as the country fought communism and endorsed national ideals, which this project appeared to be derogative to. Its value, however, was eventually recognized, and it is still maintained.

Nick Ut - Napalm Girl, 1972

It is a photograph taken during the Vietnam War on June 8, 1972. The iconic photo, taken in Trang Bang by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, shows a nine-year-old girl running naked on a road after being severely burned on her back by a South Vietnamese napalm attack. The girl was later identified as Phan Thi Kim Phuc, and she was among other children in flight from the bombing. Before he handed in his film with the photo, the photographer took the girl to the hospital, ultimately saving her life, and the publication of the photo was delayed because it showed full frontal nudity, and of a child too. Eventually, the New York photo editor, Hal Buell, agreed that the news value of the photograph overrode any reservations about the nudity. The image won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and saw Nick Ut become the third person induced by the Leica Hall of Fame, in 2012.

Jeff Widener - Tank Man, 1989

In 1989, the Chinese government sent the military to suppress the student protest taking place at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. In one of the most iconic images of the event, and the 20th century altogether, we see an unidentified man standing in front of a row of tanks, preventing them from surpassing him. Although there were many photographic and video documentations of the event, this photo, famous by the title Tank Man and Unknown Rebel, was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, from a sixth-floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel. It is a legendary image that emphasizes the power of people and it is often used as a symbol during demonstrations worldwide. In China, this photo has been censored by the government and cannot be found anywhere on the Internet.

Rich Lam - Vancouver Kiss, 2011

It was widely believed that this photo was taken during the demonstrations in Greece. The truth is that it was taken in Vancouver, Canada, after the Vancouver Canucks hockey team lost in a final game, sending their entire city into chaos. As riots were underway, people were injured and cars were burned, veteran photojournalist Rich Lam managed to take a truly unique photograph. It depicts a couple lying and kissing on the streets with people running in the background and police trying to clear everyone out. While everyone thought this was a rather romantic scene of a couple not giving a damn about what is going on, Rich Lam revealed that the girl was actually run over,and the guy was comforting her; at that moment, the kiss was just a part of the situation.

Samuel Aranda, World Press Photo of the Year 2011

In the 57-year long history of the World Press Photo documentary photography competition, the 2011 winner image, taken by Samuel Aranda, surely is one of the most moving photographs out there. Taken for The New York Times, the image sees Fatima al-Qaws with her son Zayed, who suffered from the effects of tear gas after participating in a street demonstration in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2011. In the ongoing protests against the 33-year-long regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, 12 people were killed, and Zayed was one of the lucky survivors, after being in a coma for two days after the incident. World Press Photo still stands as the most influential standard-maker in documentary photography, and is organized annually, gathering the best of quality visual journalism.

All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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