Documentary Photography

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by robert_m_johnson, Jan 10, 2003.

  1. I wonder why there isn't more emphasis placed on documentary photography
    here at (I guess these days it is called Street Photography by most
    people) I did check out the Walker Evans critique area and I didn't see
    anything even close to a documentary image?? To me documentary
    photography is at the very foundation of photography! Any thoughts??
  2. Documentary and Street photography are different, if related disciplines, not synonyms. If there isn't more emphasis here, perhaps it's because there are not as many people doing (or interested in doing) documentary photography.
  3. There may not be that many people interested in the genre here at photonet, (not withstanding several very talented people here on the "People" Forum), but there are certainly many people involved and working in documentary and street photography. See the link in this forum I posted to the Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, which is attended by photographers from all over the world and has been held (actually in Decatur, my home town! Yeah!) for many years. It's a very difficult type of work that requires a very special and fluid personality willing to take risks that many people won't even consider. From the people I know in that segment of photography, I think it requires a solidly confident yet invisible ego. What do you think, Jeff?... t
  4. "I think it requires ... invisible ego."

    This would explain its lack of emphasis on
  5. Frankly, I think the short answer is that documentary photography is hard.

    Worthwhile, interesting stories that lend themselves to photographic coverage and are at least semi-original take some finding. Flowers and landscapes, however, are right outside your door.
  6. 75% of my personal work is documentary or street images...mostly B&W. I've had the good fortune to travel to great cities as part of my job. Taking a camera along as company became imparitive. I called it my portable creativity. Then, that style of shooting became in vogue for weddings, and for God's sake people actually pay me to do my favorite thing in the whole world. You might see a bit more of that style on the Leica site. There are some pretty good street shooters posting on occassion.
  7. Perhaps one reason why you don't see much documentary photography is that caters more to the artistic crowd (the galleries that is, the rest are mostly gear-heads) while documentary photography is closer to photojournalism. Anyway, that does not stop you from exhibiting your own work! You will probably find some nice pictures if you look hard enough.
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  8. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Documentary photography doesn't appear much on because it takes a level of concentration and commitment to a subject and to photographing that subject that most photo.netters don't have. The subject must be worth documenting to make it worthwhile. The best example I have seen on is the work of Rob Appleby, who used to frequent the Leica Forum, but may not be now be as I think he is no longer shooting with a Leica.
    Despite all sorts of claims of "objectivity," documentary photography seems to work best when the photography comes in with a specific perspective. This is, after all, what gives life to a documentary - that the photographer takes a position that gives coherence to the photographs, rather than ending up with a random set of images. A good example is Graciela Iturbide's work with the Zapotecs of Juchitan - she sees the strong matriarchy in that society with a warm eye.
    As a side note, I would disagree that the Leica forum has any distinction regarding documentary or street photography, or photography in general for that matter. The photography on that forum is no better than the average level of what can be found on If Marc and two or three others there stopped posting, the quality would decline precipitously.
  9. Scott Hue was kind enough to let me use an essay he wrote on Street/
    Documentary photography on the link page of my web site. It is in the .pdf
    format. I think some of you will find it interesting!

    It is a boohoo page and it is not always up!
  10. Bailey I would love to see some of your work. All I found in your profile is the
    blury little guy in a field of snow? Just wondering where your level of expertise
    comes from?
  11. "I would disagree that the Leica forum has any distinction regarding documentary or street photography, or photography in general for that matter. The photography on that forum is no better than the average level of what can be found on"

    Yes Jeff, but you can't boast of owning an Elvis Lives! Commerorative Mamiya, can you huh, huh?

    I didn't think so.

    You don't have to worry about owning the right colored matching soft trigger and lenscaps, or wonder what the equivalent pistol or liquor is to your camera.
  12. Emre, what a beautiful photograph. The light you captured is amazing. Jeff, I guess I'd have to agree that there are not a lot of examples. But, like you, I was thinking of select individuals like Rob Appleby. I believe you can still access his folder. BTW, according to one of his last posts, I think he still shoots with a Leica (or at least some film camera). He is not around now due to going off to his next location in the Mid-East. I've added another "street" shot, from a collection of images taken in London over the years.
  13. It deserves to be said, again, that street and documentary photography aren't the same thing. For some reason, many people seem to think that any black-and-white image shot in an uncontrolled situation qualifies as documentary photography, but it doesn't. (That doesn't mean their pictures are bad, just that they're calling them something they aren't.)

    What sets documentary photography apart is you go out not to create unconnected images but to create a body of work, all relating to a single subject, and as Jeff pointed out, all shot with a consistent point of view. This is not the same thing as a photo story, but it is a form of journalism.

    Street photography doesn't "say it all"; it communicates, to be sure, and communicates well, but the points it can make are of necessity simple. Documentary projects, on the other hand, tackle subjects too large and complex to be approached in a single photograph.

    Taking pictures of people in the streets of Toronto is street photography. Creating a body of work celebrating the diversity of Toronto's ethnic neighborhoods is documentary photography. Making a series of photographs that follow the progress of a recent immigrant living in Toronto, as he obtains Canadian citizenship, is doing a photo story.

    The reason you don't see this stuff on is that it's hard. I'll take flak for saying this, but street photography is relatively easy. It's not that it's easier photographically; it's that documentary photography requires a high level of commitment outside mere photographic skill. If you want to do documentary photography, you have to find an original (one hopes!) topic, develop a point of view on the topic, research the topic to find specific subjects that allow you to express your point of view, gain access to those subjects, and actually meet people (Yikes!). Only then can you start making pictures.

    You don't do a documentary project on the weekend and post the pictures on on Monday. So instead, you go out and make yet another picture of a flower.
  14. "What sets documentary photography apart is you go out not to create
    unconnected images but to create a body of work, all relating to a single
    subject, and as Jeff pointed out, all shot with a consistent point of view. This is
    not the same thing as a photo story, but it is a form of journalism."

    Andrew if you read the .pdf about Documentary Photography at my site Scott
    feels just the opposite of what you stated. He says that a documentary
    photograph is a single image as opposed to a series of images. Lets not
    forget that a documentary image can and should have some historical value.
    They don't have to be pretty, just real. If you get the chance read his essay.
  15. Emre, your image is pretty and real! Nice job!
  16. Nah, I could never agree with the notion that documentary photography is about capturing one-off images. My understanding of documentary photography is of using pictures and text to convey information. The point of having multiple pictures is to present the various facets of the subject. The text fills in the rest.
  17. I love street photography. I think it's extremely challenging, and often frustrating because it's a reactive process. You cannot create the situation. You just have to wait for it to occur, and hopefully be ready to capture it for posterity. Seeing work from people like Cartier-Bresson sometimes inspires me and sometimes makes me more frustrated. It's difficulty is a barrier to many people.
  18. Robert,

    I read the .pdf at your site. I'm saying that I think Scott's wrong on that count, that I think he's confusing the definitions. It's ironic that he'd put up Dorothea Lange's migrant mother as an example; it ain't street photography (although it might be dirt track photography), and although it's a powerful image on it's own, it's also a part of the sort of body of work I described.

    To say that documentary photography is street photography is to define it in a very narrow way. Street photography is a genre with recognizable conventions, the most marked of which are an uncontrolled situation, the use of black-and-white film, and an urban setting. Documentary photography is less restricted by convention.

    Of course, all these things sort of blend into one another around the edges. I just ran into an amusing quotation attributed to W. Eugene Smith: "hardening of the categories causes art disease."

    I agree with you in principle; I'm far more interested in uncontrolled situations than I am in studio photography or in things like nature photography, in which the flowers and landscapes obligingly hold still for us. To me, photographing a fluid situation is the "purest" form of photography.

    But to those who classify their street photography as documentary, the question must be asked: what precisely are you documenting?
  19. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    It's ironic that he'd put up Dorothea Lange's migrant mother as an example; it ain't street photography (although it might be dirt track photography),
    It's a posed photo. I agree that it's odd to give this as an example of street photography, especially given that the way he defines street photography.
    I would take issue with a quite a few other statments in the article, such as the comment about black and white film being essential for street photography (the last chapter of Bystander, A History of Street Photography shows how strong color street photography can be), the comment that a 50mm lens should be used because it shows "close to what the eyes see", a meaningless criterion even if it were right), and finally, as pointed out above, the implication that street and documentary are the same.
  20. I think it is a fluid thing. However, I do feel that documentary work
    should be documenting something specific. In other words, the
    photographer sets out on a mission rather than hunting the unknown.
    They are discriminating the subject matter. For example, the "Organ
    Grinder" example I posted here was part of a mission I realized while
    visiting London a number of times (but is not limited to shooting in
    London). The theme was to photograph disappearing "genuine" things
    and/or people still around in the real world (as opposed to in a museum).
    I have begun to assemble a number of such subjects.

    I also don't believe documentary work has to have some higher social
    value. To me, that is elitist thinking. IMO, it can be very personal and
    still be with-in the style of documentary work. Sally Mann did a pretty
    good job of documenting her family/children with a very personal POV.
    There is no reason why Joe Blow can't do the same.
  21. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Marc, I'm not sure that anyone said that documentary should have some "higher" social value. It will however, if it is effective, have come from a specific viewpoint. Disfarmer, for example, did an excellent job "documenting" a small town - despite his primary motivation being financial, his personal isolation (and possible misanthropy) created a compelling documentary portrait of the town.

    Where this differs from what I have seen of "Joe Blow" family pictures is that they are randomly taken and the likelihood of getting something that really carries a documentary feel is slim.
  22. Jeff, I agree. The likelyhood is slim. But it is entirely possible for an less
    talented, experienced or well known photographer to document
    something personal like his/her family if they set that as the mission
    don't you think? So, with a little understanding of the process like that
    being shared here, Joe Blow (meaning even one of us, since none of us are
    exactly household names), could participate in making documentary
    photography. I became interested in it myself when I discovered Mark
    and Dan Jury's little 1975 book titled "Gramp".
  23. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I wonder if Larry Clark's Tulsa would fit in this category. I don't know enough about his life, but I think he was just a teenager with a camera when he started it...
  24. Jeff, I agree on the black-and-white thing. In fact, one of my objections to equating documentary and street photography is that street photography is so conventionalized. Many people believe that you can't do street photography in colour -- if you do, it's something else. It's like the nature photography convention that says a nature photo can't contain any sign of human beings, or it's automatically bad. Hardening of the categories causes art disease.

    I think that Marc articulated what I was trying to define above somewhat better than I did; the definition of documentary photography is really about your approach and intentions.
  25. Street or Documentary? This is one of my photographic heros. E. B. Luce. His
    work is worth checking out!
  26. "Through the years Edwin B. Luce recorded many Worcester businesses
    which, along with his street views, became a valuable documentation of
    Worcester at the turn of the century."
  27. Hey, I'll take all the compliments I can get ;-)

    What do I think about it? I think any picture (excluding "art", I suppose) has an evidentiary value, and as such is a document of whatever was in front of the camera. Even a Witkin picture can be used like this: hey, that guy really didn't have any legs on the 3rd of December 1987. But documentary as an undertaking is about having a story and telling it in pictures. You usually need text as well, but some excellent documentary works without text (Delahaye's Winterreise comes to mind). It's more like film-making or investigative journalism. And I think this is where it differs - apart from the intentionality aspect - from a series of pictures of, say, shopfronts taken over years which then turn out to be (or can be used to provide) documentation of its subjects retrospectively - because you have to think in terms of a structure, something like a plot but usually without the feelgood ending. That's something that's interesting me more these days - narration.

    It's not a particularly difficult thing to do, but it does take time, money and access to put together, as well as a very clear idea of your aims. You can spend a week on a project before taking a single picture, or you can start the first day - it all depends on the access and what you want to achieve.

    So I see it as a distinct genre, different from photojournalism, street photography, whatever.
  28. You can't really call a single image "documentary" any more than you can call a single page of a book a novel. The simple recording of something fleeting doesn't make for documentary.

    Think about documentaries in film or television--they are long, detailed, heavily edited. A great emphasis is placed on the overall presentation. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's clear that the work has an organizing principle.

    Documentary photography--a series of related photos--is like that.
  29. I agree with Preston (and with much of what Andrew says) about this. Documentary photography requires a commitment of time and energy that street photography does not. Documentary photography is a deeper, broader undertaking that no single image, or mere handful of images, can succeed at. It's the investment of time, energy, and perhaps (probably) photographic failure early on in a project, that eventually allow one to succeed. I made the attached image after more than a year's involvement with a pair of Primitive Baptist churches in Mississippi. Although I was no more talented a photographer when I made it than I was at the start of the project, I could not have made this image at the start, because I hadn't yet developed the familiarity that allowed me to be there or learned, as part of the process, the right way to act while there. The notion of documentary photography as process is essential, I think.
  30. If you look at the old Time Life series on photography, the one on
    Documentary photography is full of single images. It has Evans (documentary
    ) as well as Winogrand (street). I'm not saying that a singe image is always a
    documentary photograph, but I do think they can be. I have been to
    photography exhibits where there have been single images of documentary
    photographs. Is there a difference between a photo essay and a documentary
    photo project?
  31. Generally Street Photography is about the photographer's point of view (Bresson, early Meyerowitz, Winograd) while Documentary is about a subject (Bruce Davidson's "Subway", Eugene Richards "Knife and Gun Club" and Eugene Smith's "Country Doctor"). And we all know no generalization is completely true (self inclusive), so I'll not "harden the catagories" for fear of infarction. Each of these guys have played both sides of this fence.
    Regarding this quote: You can't really call a single image "documentary" any more than you can call a single page of a book a novel... true, but you can call them "documents". Semantics befuddles on occassion. Clarity calls. Beware the empirical response... t
  32. A bit off topic but Edwin B. Luce started the longest running photo lab in the
    USA. It is still in operation today! I was lucky enough to spend some time
    working there.
  33. First, we agree, it's hard. Second, we search for non-existent distinctions.They say, it's allright if a scientist does not see the forest for the trees - then he begins to study leaves. Nitpicking we are in this discussion.

    No "street" is opposed to "documentary", and it's not possible to treat these as if they were as 2 different genres.
    The only thing there is is photographing UNPOSED LIFE, which can be done well - from the artistic point of view - or badly.

    The aesthetics of this kind of photography is as follows: random life from time to time generates moments of special artistic significance. The role of the photographer is to SEE and recognize those moments - and to immediately resolve them (by composing perfectly) and registering.

    Therefore, a photographer plays a game with life itself, and whatever is created depends in equal measure both on what happened and how cultivated and how ready to appreciate the unexpected the observer's mind is.

    And I'd agree, it's a difficult game to play - and excactly because of this, it's probably the most interesting.

    That's why there are (comparatively) few accomplished practitioners in this category.
  34. "Non-existent distinctions"... Well, as someone who does documentary, I believe these distinctions are important, or at least, they have helped me to sharpen my focus on what it is I aim to do in a project. It's interesting that it's often street-style photographers who want to assimilate their work to documentary - it's not often the other way round, although street photography is one of the modes in which a documentary photographer can work.

    Above all, I don't think a documentary photographer is just waiting for randomness to coalesce into significance, so to speak; that does sound much more like a rather reductive version of street photography. Instead, the documentarist actively pursues a subject, and much of the documentary aspect comes in the editing stage, sequencing images into a coherent narrative, which is not so characteristic of SP. IMO.
  35. last documentary work I did- spring 98, I discovered summmer 99. Coincidence? I think not!
  36. On last thought, a lot of high brow documentary photography looks like
    nothing more then street photography in an exotic location. Perhaps our lowly
    street images could be viewed the same from someone not familiar with our
    surroundings and way of life.
  37. Documentary photography... See W. Eugene Smith's essay on "Minamata"

    Street photography... See Winogrand, Elliott, et al.

    Differences? - You bet!

    Emre, I agree with your viewpoint. Nice image btw...and, as The Joker said to Batman,
    "Where does he get all his neat toys?"

    My question to you... how do you do that framing around your pics?

  38. I dont think there is such a thing as a documentary style, not in this day and age any way. In a lot of cases, documentary is fine art, you dont have to show a "happening" in black and white for an image to become documentary.

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