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Documentary Photography

Documentary Photography Collage

Started: 1843

"There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated."

Lewis Hine

Summary of Documentary Photography

The term Documentary Photography describes photography that attempts to capture real-life situations and settings. Since Nicéphore Niépce made the first photograph in 1816, photography's capacity to capture reality led to enthusiastic interest in documenting all aspects of contemporary life. As a result, Documentary Photography became a genre as early as the mid-1800s. As the medium developed, however, Documentary Photography became so diffuse it came to be discussed through a whole series of photographic sub-genres.

Lacking, then, a truly precise definition, Documentary Photography is best thought of as an umbrella term that encompasses many styles and themes including: Social Documentary; Conservation Photography; Ethnographic Photography; War Photography; the photo essay; New Documents; and Social Landscape photography. What unites these styles at basis is the principle that the camera is in essence a machine for recording reality. Though one cannot say it is objective, the intention of the documentary photographer is to bring to light some otherwise hidden reality or injustice. Stylistically, documentarians typically favor sharply focused and/or pure images, that eschew darkroom manipulation or forgery. Other genres of photography, including Street Photography and Photojournalism, sometimes include particular works that are considered documentary images, though both genres primarily focus on capturing a moment, or split second whether that be an encounter on a street or a moment of breaking news.

Key Ideas

More than any other medium, the camera "machine" lends itself best to documentary because the spectator is predisposed to believe the visual evidence put before them. Documentary Photography can be thus presented on its own or as part of a bigger written or spoken project (as evidenced, say, in the photo essay).
Given its commitment to revealing a particular truth, Documentary Photography resists the idea of image or subject manipulation. This is in fact a rule-of-thumb rather than a hard-and-fast tenet. It remains true, however, that, in principle, Documentary Photography offers a clear divergence from art photography because the latter tends to alter or embellish reality.
Documentary Photography will often aim at exposing social and/or humanitarian injustices. In this respect it shares close links with War and Street Photography but these rely more on a "snapshot" aesthetic whereas Documentary Photography tends to be more planned in its narrative structure and pictorial composition.
In addition to its focus on the human figure, Documentary Photography includes a trend within the genre that simply "documents". Though the likes of Conservation Photography and Ethnographic Photography can be taken up for artistic and/or political purposes, the primary intention of the photographer is to do no more than "document" a disappearing or unknown world.
Riis' documentary of the city slums titled: How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York

One of the earliest Documentary Photographers, Danish immigrant Jacob Riis, was so successful at his art that he befriended President Theodore Roosevelt and managed to change the law and create societal improvement for some the poorest in America.

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