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Documentary Photography


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I wonder why there isn't more emphasis placed on documentary photography

here at photo.net? (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??

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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 <i>very</i> 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
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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.<div>004KtA-10879084.jpg.069933925ed0c9f74bd5ac85e715f310.jpg</div>

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Perhaps one reason why you don't see much documentary photography is that photo.net 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.

<p>

<img src="http://www.ece.neu.edu/students/esafak/photos/photo.net/2000-14-05.jpg">

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Documentary photography doesn't appear much on photo.net because it takes a level of concentration and commitment to a <i>subject</i> and to <i>photographing</i> 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 photo.net 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.<p>

 

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.<p>

 

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 photo.net. If Marc and two or three others there stopped posting, the quality would decline precipitously.

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"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 photo.net."

 

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.

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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 photo.net 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.<div>004L3c-10883084.jpg.f107ee313169619fee5212ca129c025f.jpg</div>

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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 photo.net 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 photo.net on Monday. So instead, you go out and make yet another picture of a flower.

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"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.

 

http://www.greenspun.com/boohoo/related.tcl?page_id=worcester

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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.
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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.<div>004LE6-10890784.jpg.d2482c5256bd6b62b614f2e51830bc79.jpg</div>
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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?

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<i>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), </i><p>

 

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.<p>

 

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 <i>Bystander, A History of Street Photography</i> 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.

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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.

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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.

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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".

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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.

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