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Documentary Photography

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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.

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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.

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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.<div>004Lr3-10916784.jpg.4d0122ea750b6ac3c1f96513a0a3f509.jpg</div>
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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?

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<i>Generally</i> 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.<p>Regarding this quote: <i>You can't really call a single image "documentary" any more than you can call a single page of a book a novel</i>... true, but you <i>can</i> call them "documents". Semantics befuddles on occassion. Clarity calls. Beware the empirical response... t
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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.

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"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.

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 1 year later...

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?



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  • 9 months later...
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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