Origins of Documentary Photography


Marien, M. W. (2014) Photography, Fourth Edition: A Cultural History. (01 edition) (s.l.): Laurence King Publishing.

Notes on some of the early practitioners of documentary photography.

Some of the earliest uses of photography in a documentary context involved images of war. The Mexican-American war of 1846 to 1848 is “often referred to as the first photographed war” (Marien,2014:42). However the available Daguerrotype technology at the time meant it was not practical to photograph significant action, so that images taken were generally static and involved the subjects having to remain motionless for a long time. The early days of photography also produced images of the second Burma war of 1852-53 (John McCosh), the Crimean war of 1853-56 (Roger Fenton) and the American Civil War of 1861-65 (Matthew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan, Andrew Gardner). In particular the American Civil war photographs showed the horror of warfare with an immediacy that much more apparent than traditional illustrations.

Félice Beato photographed the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the second Opium war in China 1860. His images in both cases depicted the conflict only from the British point of view, and it is thought that he was not above placing corpses in scenes to make them more dramatic. His sequential images from China are described as “among the first such conscientious series of images” (Marien,2014:118).

Gardner and O’Sullivan, along with Carleton Watkins, later explored and photographed the American west. Employed by survey missions, their images often depict the west as a land of opportunity for white settlers to make a new life, and as such often ignored any existing native inhabitants. Because of the nature of their employment their work was never going to be truly objective. However despite their work at times being little more than advertising propaganda  the results show a more complex depiction of the west than perhaps their employers had expected.

Albert Kahn expeditions to photograph people around the world, a lot of which were made using the newly developed autochrome process to produce colour images. The results were over seventy thousand images from around fifty countries. His aim was to promote world peace by allowing people to appreciate cultural differences between different people. As such the results can be seen as more objective than both the earlier war images and the survey work of O’Sullivan and Watkins.

Filmmaker Robert Flaherty produced documentary films ‘Nanook of the North’ and ‘Moana’ to try and depict the lives of indigenous peoples. Although purportedly not scripted, he was not above restaging events for the camera. In this sense his work may not be viewed as truly objective, but he did do much to popularize the idea of documentary as a distinct type of imagery.

In the late 19th century Eugène Atget produced images of Paris as aids to artists. He called his images “Documents pour artistes”, with the primary intention that they could be used by painters as aids in their work. The unintentional consequences were a vast collection of images showing the changes that occurred in Paris during this period and into the early twentieth century.

August Sander set out to document occupational types in Germany from the 1920s onwards, and produced many thousands of images. His compositions were deliberately neutral, to try and limit the results to an objective depiction of the subjects.   Although intended to remove any trace of authorial subjectivity, in later years his influence on the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and later on Andreas Gursky, introduced the idea that this total objectivity could in itself be an authorial stance.    

In 1937 the Farm Security Administration employed photographers to document the agency’s work. Walker Evans was influenced by Atget’s images of Paris and used this to produce relatively modest images of the effects of the great depression of the 1920s. Dorothea Lange also produced work for the FSA but with a much stronger concern about the lack of social justice in America at the time.

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