Zoë Moosmann Photography 3 Dissertation What is documentary photography?

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Zoë Moosmann Photography 3 Dissertation

What is documentary photography?

“Life Library of Photography” defines documentary photography as “a depiction of the real world by a photographer whose intent is to communicate something of importance - to make a comment - that will be understood by the viewer.”

Documentary photography is often confused with Journalistic photography because the term Documentary photography came into use during the Depression years, when telling pictures of poverty stricken farmers awakened Americans to the need for social reform. These photographers were very reportage-style and identical to the journalistic approach where the importance of the image relies on how succinctly it can record a situation. In the minds of many people this field of photography still suggests pictures of rural hardship and urban slums.

Yet there is far more to documentary photography than the recording of the world’s ills. For there is much more to document than suffering and poverty: faraway places and exotic peoples, quirks of nature and of society, the whole range of emotions and relationships. The subject matter is almost unlimited.

There is a nebulous but fundamental difference between the field of documentary and journalistic photography.

A documentary photographer always has an agenda / point of view that he/she wants to bring across photographically. They do this by honing in on this particular aspect when shooting. Documentary photographers are active agents bent upon communicating a message to an audience. Documentary photography is more than expressions of artistic skill; they are conscious acts of persuasion.

A journalistic photographer on the other hand is supposedly not interested in making a point; they are supposed to be merely objectively and passively photographing what is happening with no personal interpretation of the situation evident in the photographs. Journalistic photography is frequently called reportage. Since the first halftone was produced in 1880, photographs have functioned in the news as “evidence” to support accompanying text. There has been a strong belief that “a picture is worth a thousand words” and faith in a photograph conveying the pure “objective” truth.

On the other hand, objectivity in journalism has been described as an institutional myth. A top editor for Newsweek said that the primary task in story selection is “to tell the readers this is what we think is important and we hope they’ll feel the same way, but our aim isn’t ideological”

But the medium of photography has had to struggle with the question of “objectivity” since Niepce and Daguerre first uncovered the process that “gives nature the power to reproduce itself.” It has been said that there is no objectivity in photography in political terms. There are only choices based on one’s point of view. Brecht wrote: “The tremendous development of photographic journalism has contributed practically nothing to the revelation of the truth about the conditions in this world. On the contrary, photography, in the hands of the bourgeoisie, has become a terrible weapon against the truth. The vast amount of pictured material that is being disgorged daily by the press that seems to have the character of truth, serves in reality only to obscure the facts. The camera is just as capable as lying as the typewriter.”

I believe that this dilemma results from the difficulty that photography has had in defining itself since its beginnings.

The fight to certify photography as a fine art has been among the medium's dominant philosophical preoccupations since its inception. Photography's legitimacy as an art form was challenged by artists and critics, who seized upon the mechanical and chemical aspects of the photographic process as proof that photography was, at best, a craft. Photography was the discovery of science by chemists and inventors, not artists. Perhaps because so many painters came to rely so heavily on the photograph as a source of imagery, they insisted that photography could only be a handmaiden to the arts.

Photography has been accepted by some as art and has become an artistic outlet for certain artists, but at the same time others have retained the belief in photography being able to render the truth. Photography is therefore in an undefined grey area where it functions as artistic expression but also as a mechanism for recording facts.

There are often problems occurring out of this vague situation. One resulting belief is that because photography is now considered an art form it cannot be relied on to record truth. This is reflected in the statement that “Politics has no place in art” and “Art has no place in politics.”

What then makes a photograph a documentary?

I think it must convey a message that sets it apart from a landscape, a portrait, a street scene. It may record an event, but the event must have some general significance, more than the specific significance of a news photo. It may record character or emotion - but again, of some general social significance; it is more than personally revelatory, as a portrait is. The documentary photograph tells us something important about the and hopefully makes us think about the world in a new way.

A documentary photograph may be as public as a picture in a mass-circulation magazine, or as private as an intimate view of a loved one. On superficial inspection a good documentary photograph may seem little more than a snapshot. But under more careful scrutiny it generally reveals itself to be a visual representation of a deeply felt moment, as rich in psychological and emotional meaning as a personal experience vividly recalled. I believe the aims and objectives of documentary photography are to increase the understanding of society and man.

Photography has endured a difficult time affirming its space in the art world.

Charles Baudelaire commenting on the Salon of 1859 remarked, “Photography, like all other purely material developments of progress, (has) contributed much to the impoverishment of the French artistic genius.” This reflects the conventional belief that photography’s knack for “Truth” makes it analytical, and Truth, which we would call “Objectivity”, is repellent to “Beauty.” It was believed that as the photographic image promotes an “exclusive taste for the True, it oppresses and stifles the taste of the Beautiful”. Baudelaire, a later Romantic, felt that the camera’s lens so grounded Truth in mundane fact that it became the enemy of Beauty and our capacity to “create or feel wonder.”

It is surprising that even before the invention of photography John Keats in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” of 1819 defends the right that truth can be beautiful when he wrote that, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

It can be seen how early photographers sacrifice the objectivity and conceal the mechanized-nature of photography by deliberately blurring their photographs which result in a gauziness such as in Edward Steichen’s early, turn-of-the-century photographs. This reflects the photographers’ yearnings for the beauties native to paint and canvas. Baudelaire was right in that photographs cannot be works of art in the way that painting are.

The early Pop paintings of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein have the same impact of photographs. Warhol and the rest were reviled, just as Baudelaire reviled the photographers of his day, for abandoning the eye to mundane reality, a dull Truth. They captured for painting a beauty alien to the medium. Warhol found ways to make the painted image glamorous. This is something that frequently happens in photography. Glamour occurs when the mundane manages to somehow rise above its self, to take on an allure that everyday life denies it.

So the question is where does documentary photography fit in all of this? Because it deals with the everyday, does it mean that the resulting photographs are mere mechanical recording of this, just like photojournalism? Or does it have more artistic, aesthetic merit?

I believe Documentary photography differs from journalistic photography in that although they both deal with realistic subject matter of everyday life the methods they use to reflect and depict these realities differ. In documentary photography the realities are presented in a more artistic, compassionate and involved manner compared to the purely representational way a photojournalist records a situation.


Like all art forms, documentary photography contains an essence of the image-makers interpretations of the situation. As documentary photographer Robert Frank wrote; “There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment. This kind of photography is realism. But realism is not enough - there has to be vision and the two together can make a good photograph. It is difficult to describe this thin line where matter ends and mind begins.”

The documentary photographer employs various methods to reveal, accentuate and emphasize the emotive effect of the scene depicted. Therefore with documentary photography there is more of an emphasis on the resulting aesthetic than merely capturing what the situation presents, as this is what empowers the image’s emotive impact. The documentary photographer considers, for instance, the compositional formal arrangement of the subject as Henri Cartier Bresson mentions when he says, "What reinforces the content of a photograph is the sense of rhythm and the relationship between shapes and values."


Henri Cartier further emphasises this when he explains the meaning of the famous term he coined “the decisive moment” by saying “To take photographs means to recognize — simultaneously and within a fraction of a second — both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning” The importance he placed on formal arrangement of subjects is also reflected in this remark he made, ”Inside movement there is one moment in which the elements are in balance. Photography must seize the importance of this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it”.


Henri Cartier Bresson is an example of a documentary photographer whose photographs go beyond being figurative content-based documentations. For him the subject matter is only one of the ingredients. He does not solely rely on the subject to make the photograph but instead recognises the surroundings and realises their capability to enhance the image. In the example featured here of his work the jumping ballet dancer motif on the signage echoes the exact jump of the subject, which is further emphasised by his reflection in the water. Some people believe that the uncanny manner in which the symbols, icons, surroundings of his pictures seem to fit together is mere coincidence. But the vast example of his pictures - such as the examples given here - with their sense of timing, rigorous organization, and insights into human emotion and character, could never have been caught by luck alone, unaided by talent.


”Photography has powers that no other image-system has ever enjoyed because, unlike the earlier ones, it in not dependent on an image maker. However carefully the photographer intervenes in setting up and guiding the image-making process, the process itself remains an optical-chemical or electronic one, the workings of which are automatic, the machinery for which will inevitably be modified to provide still more detailed and, therefore, more useful maps of the real ....The primitive notion of the efficacy of images presumes that images possess the qualities of real things, but our inclination is to attribute to real things the qualities of an image. "On Photography" by Susan Sontag Although photography generates works that can be called art - - it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure -- photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. -Susan Sontag

There are critiques made about the so-called aestheticization of the documentary image. An example of this critique was made in 1991 in The New Yorker in an article about photographer Sebastiao Salgado called “Good Intentions” “He is too busy with compositional aspects of his pictures - with finding “grace” and “beauty” in the twisted forms of his anguished subjects. This beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration not to action.”

This viewpoint is based on the classical debate within German Marxism that occurred from the 1930s to the 1950s, involving Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. The idea of the “aestheticization of tragedy” can be found in Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Author as Producer” in which he speaks of the ways certain modish photographers proceed in order to make human misery an object of consumption. “It transforms political struggle so that it ceases to be a compelling motive for decision and becomes an object of comfortable contemplation”.

I believe that the idea that the more transformed or “aestheticized” an image is, the less “authentic” or politically valuable it becomes, is one that needs to be seriously questioned. Why can’t beauty be a call to action?

I believe that this is because Documentary photography often gets misread as photojournalism. It must be understood that the approach that a documentary photographer has is very different to that of a photojournalist. A photojournalist can stand back and has no physical involvement with the subject. In fact the less tampered with, the more “pure” a journalistic image is considered.


Documentary photography on the other hand is an expression using the reality of a situation, the photographer’s emotions and considerations of a situation. When Dorothea Lange stated, "I had to get my camera to register things that were more important than how poor they were - their pride, their strength, their spirit”, it reflected how documentary photography can be used to convey our impressions of a situation and the documentary photographer’s concern with representing this.


Documentary photographers and their working methods

The success of a documentary image is often a reflection of the documentary photographer’s working method. The documentary photographers that produce the most emotive and evocative images (which in essence is the aim of documentary photography) work closely with their subjects. These are the images that give us the most intimate scope into the lives of the people or situation captured. In order to achieve this it is necessary for the photographer to get involved with their subjects so that they can have their trust that enables them to access this effectively.

There are various documentary photographers whose work I admire highly. I believe the success of their work is a result of the intimacy and involvement that they established with their subjects. Documentary photography requires immense psychological and emotional commitment with the situation and peoples being photographed in order to produce effective and emotive photographs that have prominence. Being a documentary photographer means far more than being a mere machine operator. When photographing people, especially when they are fully aware and expectant of what you are doing, the picture-making process involves more that pressing the button of the camera. There is a long, complex and intensely human process, which makes them unveil their secrets to you. I believe that what makes a picture great is everything that happens before you press the shutter button. I can relate to what Henri Cartier Bresson says “The photograph itself doesn't interest me. I want only to capture a minute part of reality.” Henri Cartier-Bresson

The following photographers, Mary Ellen Mark, Dorothea Lange, Bruce Davidson and Helen Stummer, I will refer to as I believe their working methods exemplify this.

Mary Ellen Mark has worked as a photojournalist for around 30 years, travelling worldwide and being published in leading magazines around the globe. She photographs fringe groups of society in an explanatory and direct style. She has become particularly well known for her work in India on such diverse elements as Mother Teresa, circuses and Bombay brothels. It took her ten years of persistence to get into the brothels to photograph. Her reports are never sensation-mongering, and they always seek to be compassionate and not to degrade the dignity of those portrayed. This is true of the prostitute in India in her project Falkland Road (1981) and the photographic series of the eighties with children living in the Bronx, the homeless, junkies and the handicapped.

An extraordinary aspect of Mary Ellen Mark's career is the trust and respect that she establishes with her subjects, enabling her to continue to photograph them over many years.

Another documentary photographer who reflects the emotional involvement that is a requirement of documentary photography is Bruce Davidson. Davidson is well known for his photographs of East 100th Street in Harlem, of circus dwarfs, and of Welsh coal miners and village life.

Davidson’s photographs of people in their homes and on the street have a typical approach that emphasizes some dramatic angle or contrast. This can be seen in his photograph Untitled 1970 (from his East 100 Street series) where large areas of deep shadow foregrounds the wall of the apartment building against open sky above and surrounding apartment house below. The picture gains immediacy from a boy running with a kite, it is an image of freedom and play, but in this case it is limited to the length of the roof top.

Davidson concerns himself with subjects of everyday reality. He photographs drug addicts and criminals, and he documents streets scenes and demonstrations. He followed the changes in America during the late fifties and early sixties with great empathy.

In the spring of 1959, Davidson spent several months photographing a group of Brooklyn teenagers who called themselves "The Jokers". Davidson was introduced to the gang by a social worker and gradually became a part of their world as he hung out with them in the neighbourhood, in Prospect Park and at Coney Island. Davidson's photographs of the gang show us street-wise young men and their girlfriends, in various states of wariness, vacancy, and sometimes hope, as they move through a landscape of beaches and boardwalks, street corners and diners. His camera records both the particular details of the gang members' lives, such as the tattoos, sunglasses and slicked-back hair that signify their toughness, and a more general sense of their vulnerability and vitality. The youth's restless activity is presented more as a desperate search for love and good times than for criminal wrongdoing

Taken as a whole, the images of The Brooklyn Gang form a portrait of longing, anxiety and alienation. Davidson's work asks us to consider how we can find beauty, meaning and understanding in the lives of others, including those who are troubled or in crisis. The Brooklyn Gang is an intimate portrait, but ultimately its subject is greater than the coming-of-age of one group of inner-city teenagers.

He describes his method of working as follows: “My way of working is to enter an unknown world, explore it over a period of time, and learn from it. I was twenty-five and they were about sixteen. I could easily have been taken for one of them … I found myself involved with a group of unpredictable youths who were mostly indifferent to me. In time they allowed me to witness their fear, depression and anger. I soon realized that I, too, was feeling some of their pain. In staying close to them, I uncovered my own feelings of failure, frustration, and rage.”

He refused to shoot in shoot-and-run style but would make himself part of the community. His pictures are in the same tradition of documentary that Jacob Riis began in 1880s, but Davidson’s attitude towards his subject is totally different. Riis looked at them from a position of social superiority, Davidson tries to level the field.

This quote from ‘New Republic’ sums up well the merit of Davidson’s work, “Bruce Davidson is an artist who uses a camera. He is a master of composition. He knows how to use light and shadows. He arranges his 'subject-matter' in a suggestive and evocative manner. He senses things others have no time or inclination to bother with…these photographs do not take advantage of New York ghetto people and turn them into objects - objects of pity, objects for minds bent on the sensational, objects to be analyzed and labelled and categorized. We are shown, instead, the daily effort that human beings make to get by, to find food and love and yes, a kind of meaning in the midst of ruinous social and economic circumstances."

Another photographer who has the same talent of being able to record and expose the emotions of her subjects in such a dignified intimate manner is Dorothea Lange.

Dorothea Lange joined the Farm Security Administration in 1935 and reported on the rural areas of the USA. In an unflinching direct manner, she documented the bitter poverty of the migrant workers and their families. Dorothea Lange’s pictures not only showed the hopelessness and despair, but also the pride and dignity with which people endured their circumstances. While many FSA photographs merely documented the existence of poverty, some, such as Lange’s, put a human face on misery. As a child she had polio which left her with a permanent limp. She believed that her limp helped her photography by creating an instant rapport between herself and her subjects. She said that people trusted her more because she did not appear "whole and secure" in the face of their poverty and insecurity.

Another photographer whose empathetic style I admire is Helen M. Stummer. As a free-lance documentary photographer, she has been photographing the struggles and dignity of poor people in Newark, NJ, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, rural Maine, and in Comalapa, Guatemala. Although her subjects are geographically diverse, they speak the same language. It is the language of the streets, the subsistence farms, it is the mother tongue of oppressed people everywhere...Poverty. ”

She describes her intent when photographing as this, ” As I attempt to record the harsh reality of ghetto life, I witness children with the light of innocence, hope and trust in their eyes, that in only a few short years is dimmed and then crushed, leaving only the darkness of fear, anger, mistrust and apathy.” This reflects the emotional involvement she has with the subjects of her photographs which emanates from her photographs.

Stummer takes pictures of good people living in bad conditions. Like Lewis Hine, who photographed workers in the early twentieth century, her work appreciates the dignity of individuals while exposing their unhealthy surroundings. She writes, "But what seems to be invisible is seeing poor people as individuals -- the dignity, beauty, and hope that continue to live despite the desperate battle for survival."
It has been said that "Helen Stummer is the Dorothea Lange of our time." The empathetic manner in which she records her subject can be seen in this example of her work, Sharrell Showing Easter Dress to Grandmother. Here she shows us the girl’s pride in her new dress from an angle that includes the watchful look of, one presumes, a member of her family. Stummer is deliberately bringing into the same frame the girl’s fine dress and the kitchen range.

The dignity she affords the subjects of her photographs is due to the empathy she feels for them. She describes how she becomes involved in their individual lives, “Sitting down with residents listening to their stories of survival has transformed my fear into empathy. As I continue to witness the unnecessary waste of human potential, the daily crisis and devastation of poverty, as well as the themes of coping, ingenuity and courage of residents struggling each day to survive against the odds, stereotypes are turned into individuals”

She describes her method of creating such intimate, emotive photographs as such: “To gain access into the homes and the lives of people is the most difficult to accomplish — credibility, passion to tell the story, and the joy of creating a true-to-life scene are essential qualities to have in documentary photography. Along with humanistic attitudes are the important uses of composition, lighting, expression and, of course, that unknown something else, the mystery of energy that makes the image come alive.”

“From 1975 to 1980, as a student at the International Centre of Photography in New York City, my journey into exploring society through photography began. Between Avenue C and D, I learned how to use my camera, how to think on my feet, how to be street smart, how to listen, how to become involved, how to be an outsider yet be included into a different world, how to experience love and strife, struggle and caring of an impoverished neighbourhood, and, above all, how to be a witness”.

The aforementioned photographers are all committed to capturing their subjects in an empathetic and compassionate manner that gives them a sense of dignity. They all have a knack at getting their subjects to trust them enough to display intimate emotion. I am very much inspired by their ability to achieve this and it is this that I aspire to in my own photographs.

The work I have produced can be classified as documentary. This is because I am intentionally making a graphic point with my photographs. I wish to visually expose the depressing lives of these aged residents at the shelters. I emphasize my interpretation of the situation in various ways to make evocative images.



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