History of Documentary Photography
As technology improved since the invention of camera prototypes in the 1830s, photography became a more mobile medium, freed from the constraints of studio practices. Documentary photography, a style that aims to chronicle historical events as well as everyday life, emerged by the 1870s. Travel photographers documented far off locales to entice tourists, and governments often funded scientific photography projects to document major events and survey unexplored lands. Faster and easier reproduction methods spurred a shift from the photographers’ focus on archiving historical events to exploring aspects of city life, both good and bad, during the 1880s. Photographers set out to document urban and rural living conditions during the Great Depression, for example, to incite reform movements. During major wars and postwar eras, photographers also turned to social documentary photography, aiming to capture the social experience of those caught in battle and its effects. Documentary photography is strongly linked to photojournalistic practices, though many photographers today have put an artistic spin on the style, garnering the attention of galleries.
Documentary Photography Techniques
Documentary photography, though used to record events in history, is not always objective. The artistic style pulls from photojournalism but produces images that tell a specific side of a story. Social documentary photographers, for example, focus on depicting groups with socioeconomic and cultural similarities to encourage social reform. These images usually focus on working and living conditions, revealing issues like poverty, homelessness, neglect, and child labor. Some artists take a street photography approach to the documentary field, snapping candid images of people in public places to produce a mirror of the human condition. Documentary photographers today use a variety of photographic mediums, though the most common are DSLRs, ideal for rapidly producing quality images.
Artists Known For Documentary Photography
Jacob Riis, an early social documentary photographer, is known for focusing on poor living conditions in New York in images like “The Children of the Slums” (1892) to garner support for social reform. The United States’ Farm Security Administration commissioned photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, of “Migrant Mother” (1936) fame, to document living conditions during the Great Depression. Nick Ut’s “Napalm Girl” (1972) is an iconic documentary photograph, depicting the brutality of the Vietnam War. South African photographers Ernest Cole and David Goldblatt are recognized for documenting life in apartheid South Africa. Martha Rosler attacked the traditional documentary genre in her “The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems” (1974-1975), providing an alternative to the cliche photographic subjects usually associated with the Bowery in New York City. Other artists known for their documentary photography include Diane Arbus, Pieter Hugo, Manuel Rivera-Ortiz, Don McCullin, Timothy O’Sullivan, George N. Barnard, Marion Post Wolcott, Russell Lee, John Vachon, Steve McCurry, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastiao Salgado, and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham.