What is documentary photography?

Miranda Gavin makes the point that documentary photography as a category is very hard to define. It becomes hard to specifically allocate a project to a discrete pile (for want of a better word) marked documentary when it could easily fit into other categories (e.g. ‘Fine art’) as well. She mentions Monique Stauder’s work ‘Latitude Zero’ as a good example of where the distinctions become blurred.   Interestingly Stauder’s own website categorises the work under ‘Fine art collections’, which does at least clarify her own interpretation. It seems to me the distinctions between ‘documentary’ and ‘fine art’ in Miranda Gavin’s terms are more to do with rigid editorial categorisation than anything else.

I have long felt that this kind of rigid distinctions is not helpful.  Although I have been taking photographs for much of my life, one of the first books I came across that led me to think that a photograph could be more than just what it showed was Richard Long’s book ‘A walk across England’. Since then I’ve looked further into Long’s work where it becomes clear that he regards the journey itself as the artwork. Although the book is a set of photographs of the journey, it acts more as a documentary of the artwork itself.   

It seems perfectly obvious that documentary does not have to exist in a completely separate category to other forms of photography. After all, ‘A walk across England’ fits just as easily into ‘Landscape’ as a category.  Miranda Gavin speaks of the need to revisit terms such as photojournalism, reportage along with documentary itself, as they have become over time too rigidly associated with distinctions that are no longer relevant.   At this stage in the course it seems to me that the terms are fair, but it is perfectly possible for photography to belong to more than one category – as well as fine art, landscape, portrait and others. In any case there is unlikely to be a fixed definition of these categories that everyone can agree on anyway.

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