Street and Documentary

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by Ian Copland, Apr 9, 2019.

  1. I have often wondered why PN has grouped street and documentary into the one forum. There are obviously some cross overs but it is clear that not all street photography is documentary and vice versa and I'm sure this wasn't the intent to imply differently. As can be seen by my posts in this forum my focus is on street 'type' photography. I have always had ambitions to be a 'documentor' but life (work) circumstances haven't allowed me the time to do more than one off or superficial studies of subjects/places. I'm interested in others thoughts - what do you understand as the difference between documentary and street photography? Does a series of images over a period of time taken in the same 'street' constitute a documentation of that palce. Or does a documentary have to have a more cohesive story? Can you document with just one image?

    The Tate Gallery descibes Documentary Photography as "a style of photography that provides a straightforward and accurate representation of people, places, objects and events, and is often used in reportage" There is also an interesting section on the aethetics of documentary: This raises the question about the purpose of the documentary - to report or to please artistically (or both - not mutually exclusive)

    I have been going through my collection - many of what I call street and travel images but there is
    not a lot I can pull together to really do an in depth story.

    It would be great to see more documentary photograhy on this forum.

    Paris Market collection 1 - street or documentary?

    Paris Street 1.jpg
    Paris 1.jpg
    Paris 13_1.JPG Paris2.jpg
  2. Documentary photography will often be about and provide information. Documentary photos can show evidence of something. They may come in series and illustrate things being discussed in larger scale reports, articles, stories, and investigations.

    Street work, IMO, has a less rational or at least not as informational sense about it. As you suggest, there’s much overlap and few genre categories have hard and fast borders drawn around them that don’t have at least some give.

    “Accuracy,” mentioned by the Tate, deserves some nuance. A documentarian probably shouldn’t be going to a baseball game, shooting just the audience, and claiming they were watching football. That would be inaccurate to the point of being false. But documentarians can be and often are opinionated. They tend to offer a particular point of view. Some maintain more objectivity than others. But I don’t hold documentarians to the same standard of objectivity as journalists. Some of the best documentaries have come from a belief in and passion for a “cause.” I wouldn’t say that makes them inaccurate but it can make them less than objective, and I think that can be a vital aspect of documentary work, as long as viewers don’t confuse it with journalism.

    Any type of photo can document. Architectural photos, still lifes, landcape, nature ... so it stands to reason that there’s a strong documentary feature in a lot of street work. Many street photographers engage in studies of certain street themes or topics, which can lead to a more documentary feel. On the other hand, a lot of street work is looser and more spontaneous, which may make it feel less documentary.

    I’ve been documenting a farming community in New Hampshire for several years now. Here are three images ...
    343B93D6-7223-458A-9C75-A1A6AC5CB2AB.jpeg 02DBD56F-2402-4FCE-8D58-6647FC548731.jpeg 5AB87736-7052-453B-B831-B35CB3BF989C.jpeg

    And here’s a street photo ...
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  3. Heck, most of my photography is documentary (my daughter says 'postcardy').

    I used images of archaeological remains and historic structures in teaching, so 'arty angles' and such like were not of much use.

    However, I am the only 'critic' in my family -- the rest were artists.

    Are these both documentary? (the first shot is required before Indian customs will let you leave the country)
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  4. Great questions Ian. I thought about it when I saw this yesterday and just couldn't think clearly about it. I think its because the distinctions between street, documentary, reportage, can just be so fuzzy in that a photo taken with the purpose of one of these categories, ie, a "news' photo, or a street photo, can be easily appropriated into documentary.

    Practically speaking, "Street and Documentary" share sufficient interests to hang together as a forum. Additionally, you have to ask if there would be sufficient interest to support separate forums for these. A lot of us take photos that fall into either category, and for some of us, street and documentary for that matter can include portraits, various "scapes" and candids, so for me, I don't really see a need to split them
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2019
    Ian Copland likes this.

  5. Thanks Uhooru. Part of the reason for raising this is the desire to see more documentary work and commentary on this forum. It seems to be dominated by the street work - I am a one of the main offenders!
  6. I think Street work, which tends to be (not exclusively, of course) more single shots and more spontaneous than most documentary work, is more conducive to the PN framework, which has become more of a fly-by social media scene and gives less ability than it used to for us to put together groups of photos on a theme, such as the PRESENTATIONS we used to be able to create. A lot of doc work is done in series and has accompanying text and it’s not easy if even possible to put something like that together on PN. Also, looking at documentary work often requires more time and thought and often requires reading that accompanying text and there’s a noticeable resistance among some active members to such explanatory text. This represents a shallow belief that photos should “stand on their own,” as expressed over and over again In many of the more banal PN discussions. Why would a documentary photographer bother?
    Ian Copland likes this.
  7. Something else to consider is politics. Even if not strictly political, most documentary work has a political element, or even a social element than touches on politics. As wer’re treated like babies here, politics is mostly verboten and seems to stir up more controversy than the powers that be can handle. Good doc work might well lead to opinionated responses and lively discussion. These days, controversies and discussions on PN are mostly about what gear to use. Better to look at boobs in Nudes or pics of cameras and lenses throughout the gear threads than dare discuss anything of political or social relevance.
    Ian Copland likes this.
  8. I agree. The forum format is not really conducive to in depth studies. Having said that I would love to hear some of your commentary on your farming community in New Hampshire series
  9. Again, I agree. Not that I have seen much social or political documentary on this site recently. This may be because of the issues you raise or because people are reluctant to be controversial. It would be interesting to know the demographics of PN regular usere.
    A number of years ago I did document the lives of residents of what was then called a 'mental retardation hospital' (thankfully long gone now). Would like to get anybodys comments on this: Either the images or the place of people with disability in our societies.
  10. Ian, the farm in New Hampshire is a small residential community for people with emotional and developmental challenges. Following is the jacket text and Intro copy of a book I produced a few years back. I guess it can serve as a response to both your request for my commentary on the farm and for my thoughts on the place of people with disabilities in society.

    This book is about a lifesharing community nestled in the idyllic countryside of southern New Hampshire. Its residents are co-workers and their families, people in need of care due to disabilities, volunteers, and other household members. I’ve visited many times in all seasons over a period of almost ten years. I come with the express purpose of taking photos which serve as a document of this thriving community and hopefully provide a glimpse into the spirit of sharing and support that a group of people living, working, and loving together can create and sustain. And I come away, gratefully, with much more than photographs. I’ve been given an appreciation for what each of us has to offer to others and to a group as a whole, and a very tangible understanding of how much grace and ability there is in disability. I think of the community with optimism and a sense of possibility. From the simple tasks of environmentally-savvy farming, caring for farm animals, daily chores and friendly encounters grows intimacy, connectedness and light. Even simple conversations take on a different aura, sometimes more like poetry than prose. It can be the tone and rhythms that are as engaging and persuasive as the actual words spoken, having a sense and meaning beyond those words. Together, we hum a familiar tune. I am amazed by the practical groundedness of life on the farm. And I see how that’s balanced by being able to lead with feelings and by embracing unabashed expressions and gestures of delight and wonder. I am swept into the kind of genuineness and spontaneity that is so present and moving here as I, too, am welcomed and loved.

    There’s a quiet, crisp beauty in winter light. A cabin stands next to us in the woods. Brisk winds nip at fingers and mittens provide warmth. Helping hands work. Tea brews on an outdoor fire and the fresh smell of mint rises with the smoke. Trees are felled, branches cut, wood is split, gathered, and stacked for colder nights. Shoulder to shoulder, tasks are undertaken and challenges met, all with good cheer . . . and a few very rosy cheeks.

    Work gets done with focus and purposefulness made more special by smiles, camaraderie and satisfaction. Lunch is being prepared in a homey, oven-warmed kitchen, the chopping and dicing punctuated by laughter, the vegetables having made their way directly from the biodynamically-farmed gardens to the colorful crocks and bowls that hold hearty soups and crunchy salads. Bakers next door mix and knead dough for bread served fresh and hot, while oatmeal-raisin cookies still bake for snacks and desserts.

    A group gathers in the garden room for making pottery, their hands modeling clay, working side-by-side, their surroundings earthy and colorful. Others enjoy a morning retreat into Eurythmy, the art of expression through movement. The gestures mirroring sounds and rhythms of speech, the practice of Eurythmy is a kind of music made visual, a rejuvenating harmony. Watching it taught, I am taken by its calming effect, the emotional centering and grounding it elicits, the physicality it seems to enhance, as if allowing people more access to their bodies as instruments and as means to a deeper sense of self and well-being in the world.

    One can’t help but feel the bond everyone’s developed with the animals. On any given day, P is found sweeping or shoveling in the stalls of the barn, working, cleaning and sorting supplies, never failing to show off his wide and joyful grin. J seems to be forever relocating cows and J Jr. carries buckets of water and feed to the pigs. M collects eggs from the chicken coop and presents them, with such panache, to the cooks in the kitchen. E and D help groom the horses with great love and care.

    Home life and togetherness are at the core of the farm and the life-affirming community it fosters. Whether it’s a quiet moment between E and T at Sunday brunch or D rapt in conversation with D2 in anticipation of an afternoon of sports or N and K chopping vegetables in the kitchen down the hall while J and V cheerfully set the table for supper, the interconnections are like the enchanting spider webs just outside, dotted with morning dewdrops catching rays of sunlight.

    Four houses provide warmth, coziness, cooperation, and add several adorable kids to the community. Long before breakfast, co-workers and volunteers are brewing coffee, simmering oatmeal, scrambling eggs, and organizing the day’s schedules. We come to the table as a family, rested and thankful for good food and friends to share it with. Houses are made of wood and other materials, a fact well known at the farm because these houses are personally maintained and built, often from the ground up. So there’s an intimacy with boards and paint and studs and flooring, with the energy-efficient flow of electricity, water, and heat. But homes are made of the people living in the houses, reading, making crafts together, folding laundry, sharing music, and relaxing in quiet times. A home at Plowshare provides privacy and a protective space and the knowledge and comfort that someone is always nearby.

    The seasons at the farm are a constant reminder of both continuity and change. The coziness of fireplaces and the quiet of fresh blankets of snow give way to budding green fields and the brightness of flowers in the gardens. The joy and longer days of summer give way to the waning vibrancy and more muted passions of fall. Life is simple and rich, grounded in practice and transcendent in spirit.

    To all of you in the community . . . you’ve invited me into your homes, made me welcome, fed me, talked with me, sang and danced with me, worked beside me, and smiled for my camera.

    Thank you!
  11. Thanks. My collection is from an institution I found my self working in in the late 80s. Unfortunately it is no where near the situation you describe - more of a gaol than a place to live and thrive. On the positive side working there lead to me spending my working life in the education of young people with disabilities. What you describe and show is what I would love to see more of on this forum.

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