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A History of Documentary Photography, Part I

The peculiar thing about documentary photography is that, since the inception of the medium, documenting has been the very purpose of photography as a whole. Historian Guillaume Blanc takes an in-depth look at what many consider to be the nobility of photography.

When the Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) was developing his invention in 1810–20, he was already looking for a way to faithfully reproduce engravings, which were at the time the privileged vehicle of knowledge and information thanks to the ease of distribution and preservation in book form and archives. 

Hercule Florence (1804-1879), another Frenchman, in exile in Brazil, was also trying to invent photography, but with the goal of reproducing banknotes. His invention was thus geared toward a document par excellence, one with such force of proof that producing a counterfeit might earn the forger a death sentence.

François Arago’s report, presented to the Chamber of Deputies on July 3, 1839, arguing the usefulness of photography and advocating that the State purchase the invention, definitively sealed the union between photography and documentation. A physicist and Secretary General of the Academy of Science, Arago had set out to determine “whether science might derive advantage” from photography, and sought to demonstrate that this was indeed a privileged medium of knowledge. In short, his aim was to prove that photography was a document, that is to say, a reliable medium of information, a proof. From Egyptology to astronomy and physics, Arago enumerated the applications of photography in the sciences of observation and calculation: these would “accelerate the progress of the sciences, which most honor the human spirit.” Thus, according to Arago, when used as an instrument of knowledge, photography would be a means of spiritual elevation.

The Pencil of Nature, 1844–46 © William Henry Fox Talbot

Meanwhile, in England, the scientist William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), the inventor of another photographic process, stressed the evidentiary nature of photography: in The Pencil of Nature (1840), he reproduced a plate featuring a shelf full of china. In the accompanying description, Talbot wrote that the photograph might serve as evidence should the objects be stolen. Even though it is but a “mute testimony,” the photograph is capable of telling the truth before the “judge and the jury.”

As an exception that confirms the rule, only Hippolyte Bayard, another photography pioneer, turned towards a more artistic type of research. However, he got quickly caught up in the medium’s documentary calling by participating in the Heliographic Mission of 1851. 

It is clear that what makes a photographic image a document, and photography a documentary instrument, is the reliability and truthfulness it is believed to offer. Because photography is a faithful reproduction of reality, it constitutes evidence, a document, in short, a source of objective information. This paradigm of photographic objectivity is the starting point for the history of documentary photography and the invention, consolidation, as well as critique of some of its functions: preserving, knowing, informing, and reforming. Because it is omnipresent throughout the history of photography, this documentary calling has adopted many, sometimes contradictory, forms and discourses. Thus, it is not uncommon for a photograph intended as a document to catch the eye of an artist, li the Surrealists who were fascinated by scientific images. Conversely, some images produced without documentary intent came to serve as evidence. The present survey looks back at some milestones that helped define the project of documentary photography. This short history is to be supplemented with countless contributions made by photographers worldwide. 

Documents toward a heritage: documentation as preservation

In the early days of photography, the documentary function that gained most traction was that of preservation. Because photography made it possible to faithfully reproduce reality, it was very quickly deployed for its capacity to build an archive, which we could access to learn about a nation’s material heritage, and which would preserve it over time. In 1851, the French Commission des Monuments Historiques launched what would come to be known as the “Mission Héliographique.” It brought together photographers Édouard Baldus (1813–1889), Henri Le Secq (1818–1882), Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884), Auguste Mestral (1812–1884), and Hippolyte Bayard (1801–1887), all members of the Heliographic Society founded in 1851, and tasked them with “collecting photographic sketches of a certain number of historic buildings.” They brought back a photographic inventory of some 175 monuments from their Mission. Each photographer had been given an individual assignment, with the exception of the duo formed by Mestral and Le Gray. They crisscrossed France on behalf of the State to assess the conservation and restoration works to be undertaken on these monuments, often damaged by the French Revolution or, like the Notre Dame du Puy, threatening to collapse due to the inaction of the authorities. This Mission, the first public commission in the history of photography, seems to have set the tone for a host of similar projects.

Le Puy, cathédrale Notre-Dame © Gustave Le Gray, Mission héliographique, 1851

The practice of documentation was particularly widespread in private circles. In 1897 in England, Sir Benjamin Stone (1838-1914) created the National Photographic Record Association in view of collecting images of tangible (architecture, objects, pieces of clothing…) and intangible British heritage (trades, customs…). By adding to this memory- and future-oriented bank of images, his goal was to foster a sense of national pride stemming from the British historical heritage. Between 1897 and 1910, he and his fellow travelers deposited nearly 6,000 photographs at the British Museum, almost a quarter taken by Stone. These images constitute today a body of memory and attest to a sensibility that associates documentation with an awareness of the fragility of things. Many of these archival images impart a sense of mystery and, even when accompanied by descriptive captions, strike the viewer with their undeniable beauty.

Tower of London, 1898 © Sir Benjamin Stone

Stone’s practice was part of a broader excursionist movement. Although it is hard to imagine photographic reporting today without some form of mobility, this was not obvious at the time: we had to wait for the equipment to became more portable and photographic plates to be industrially produced and ready to use. Thanks to these technical innovations, photography became democratized, and many amateurs specialized in what came to be known as excursionism, or group walks organized with the aim of documenting a given area and its treasures. Most often, such excursions were done on local initiative, making it possible to assemble a documentary archive of the tangible and intangible heritage of the surrounding area. The resulting images frequently recorded leisure activities: for example, Charles Adrien (1866–1930), a member of the Société Excursionniste des Amateurs Photographes and of the Association des Amateurs Photographes du Touring-Club de France—both specializing in travel photography—helped produce a record of bucolic enjoyments, such as a group portrait of photo buffs on an excursion or a moment of contemplation by the edge of a pond.

It is a small step from local excursionism to foreign travel, and many photographers went on to satisfy their wanderlust. The medium’s increasing portability inspired photographers to bring home images from afar, venturing well beyond the confines of their daily haunts. Those who went abroad on a military or scientific campaign, an artistic or diplomatic trip, often did so with the intention of sharing their experiences through photography. Through their eyes, people were able to discover the reality of the Orient, which until then had only been envisioned by painters and writers of the Orientalist movement. Photography opened new horizons.

Égypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie © Maxime Du Camp

A representative example is Maxime Du Camp’s (1822–1894) album, entitled Egypt, Nubia, Palestine and Syria: Photographic Pictures Collected During the Years 1849, 1850, and 1851. A man of letters and a journalist, Du Camp asked the French State to mount an archaeological mission and, as a trendsetting gesture, he planned to supplement his research with photographs. Although he fell short of producing a complete inventory of the riches of ancient Egypt, Du Camp’s output added up to 214 photographs, hundred twenty-five of which he included in his album. The publication combined art and historical knowledge and contained images whose precision and true-to-life character made them top-quality documents. The same is true of John Beasley Greene’s (1832–1856) images of Egypt and Auguste Salzmann’s (1824–1872) portraits of Jerusalem taken on another mission during the same period. It becomes clear that the documentary intention stems from the need to make sense of cultural heritage and to keep an informative, tangible trace of it.

Jerusalem, Judaic Sarcophagus, 1854 © Auguste Salzmann

Photographically documented archeological missions multiplied in the nineteenth century, becoming a staple in the history of the medium. Photography, however, has also enhanced our perception of what has been in front us all along. The work of some photographers, such as Charles Marville, Hippolyte Bayard, and Eugène Atget, gave impetus to documentary urban photography and made it thrive.

Hippolyte Bayard (1801–1887), an acknowledged photography pioneer, launched a documentary project in Paris in the 1840s, producing large-format pictures. Focusing on architecture and historical monuments, he was among the first to produce the document of an urban environment. Whereas Bayard worked alone on a project lacking a firm sense of direction or structure, Charles Marville (1813–1879) can be considered as the photographer whose practice was most closely identified with questions of heritage. Just as a historic monuments commission was created in 1837 and a rage for restoration pushed to include all sorts of buildings and monuments, Marville frequented and documented the worksites. Acquainted with such renowned architects-restorers as Viollet-le-Duc, the designer the spire of Notre Dame de Paris, recently destroyed by fire, Marville had produced a vast record of the pre-Haussmann Paris as well as the city’s major modernization projects. His series on the Vieux Paris, commissioned by the city in 1864, best sums up Marville’s ambitions: capturing an image of what is in the process of being transformed or replaced. More than heritage, what he sought to record was transformation. Marville’s images, while similar to Bayard’s, were part of a more systematic project and were made to satisfy a specific demand.

La Villette, rue Asselin, public girl shift watch outside her door, 19th, march 7, 1921 © Augène Atget

When it comes to Paris, the work of Eugène Atget (1857–1927) is essential. A mysterious and brilliant photographer, Atget produced a unique record of late nineteenth-century Paris, which he thought would serve painters in their studies. On the door to his studio hung a sign that read: “Documents for artists.” Noting the transformations carried out in the French capital under Haussmann, Atget sought to foster a taste for the city of yesteryear. He tasked himself with photographing everything that had to do with bygone Paris: small trades, architectural ornaments, narrow streets and back alleys, as well as plant life… His entire oeuvre of encyclopedic proportions stemmed from a desire to safeguard anything and everything that would soon become obsolete. Atget’s images are infused with mystery, which enthralled generations of photographers and artists, starting with the Surrealists.

Courtyard, rue de Valence, Paris, 1922 © Augène Atget

Atget owes his acclaim above all to the American photographer Berenice Abbott (1898–1991). She purchased part of his archive in 1929 and promptly set to the task of disseminating it. While this archive was assembled for documentary purposes, it transformed into a collection: the suggestive power of Atget’s images is far more captivating than any information they contain. Abbott applied herself to turning Atget into an auteur, an artist. This was also the first step toward endowing documentary photography with an aesthetics of its own, beyond a functional value. Upon her return to the United States, Abbott took over Atget’s project and applied it in New York. Her book Changing New York, published in 1939, was the fruit of extensive labor of documentation nourished by her encounter with Atget. She sought to dovetail the historical, utilitarian project into a distinctive artistic approach, giving it a modernist touch by using the specificities of architecture and urban planning as formal motifs.

Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn, 1936 © Berenice Abbott

Since the first large-scale nineteenth-century undertakings, there have been countless photographic projects aiming to produce documentation of a particular subject. A panorama of these endeavors would be an imposing project in its own right. It is worth noting, however, that this field continues to expand to include ever-new approaches and themes.

McSorley’s Ale House, 15 East 7th Street, Manhattan © Berenice Abbott

The work of the Bechers is a case in point. Berndt (1931–2007) and Hilla Becher (1934–2015), a duo of German photographers, became known for the obsessive quality of their work. By taking German industrial heritage as the exclusive subject of their work, they have redefined the documentary intention by adopting a conceptual approach: they photograph only with a view camera; in gloomy weather, for the sake of neutral light; and always frame their object from the front such that it fits squarely within the frame. The highly structured character of their work earned them a prize at the 1990 Venice Biennale normally awarded to sculptors: the Bechers thus helped usher documentary photography into the field of contemporary art. 

The encyclopedic temptation: documentation as knowledge

As evidenced by the many initiatives that helped forge an image-based collective memory, interest in the documentary function of photography at the end of the nineteenth century began to build on encyclopedic, pedagogical, and archival practices. This ideal was embodied above all in the development of a new kind of institution, which shouldered the civilizational project: the museum of documentary photography. 

The first museum of this kind was created in Paris in 1894 on the initiative of Léon Vidal (1833–1906), a scholar specializing in photographic techniques, with a long history of commitment to the cultural recognition of the medium. While Vidal did evoke the idea of “museum of documentary photography,” strictly speaking he referred to an image bank, which could store any type of image on any topic, with an emphasis on photography. His project received little recognition as such, but it broke ground for a series of similar projects and brought the idea of a photographic archive into popular consciousness. The culmination of this trend was the First International Congress for Photographic Documentation, held in 1906 in Marseilles. Inspired by the library model, the congress focused on methods of organizing photographic documentation, on the assumption that a photograph was not a document as such but would become one when filed and classified. 

Paul Otlet (1868–1944) is credited with taking the idea of photographic documentation a step further. Otlet devoted most of his life to developing a global system of documentation and was the father of the Universal Decimal Classification still in use today. He set up the Mundaneum, which incorporated every available medium of information: image, sound, film, as well as microfiche. In 1905, Otlet proposed Universal Photographic Documentation or the Universal Iconographic Repertory, managed by an International Institute of Photography. He sorted and stored some 150,000 photographic images using his decimal classification and index card system. He thus placed image on a par with text in terms of the knowledge either was able to convey. In his approach to photography, Otlet had two primary goals: to cope with the ever-growing mass of images and to turn photography into an instrument of communication and peace. These two goals also presided over one of the most ambitious projects in the history of photography: Albert Kahn’s Archives of the Planet. 

Regions at war, France, 1916 © Stéphane Passet

In 1909, Albert Kahn (1860–1940), French banker and philanthropist, launched a worldwide photographic and cinematographic documentation campaign with the aim of inventorying the world. He enlisted some dozen workers to produce 72,000 autochrome plates (a newly invented color photography process), 4,000 stereoscopic plates (allowing 3D viewing), and 180,000 meters of film, equivalent to 100 viewing hours. Kahn’s project linked heritage-building with recent concerns of knowledge organization. Its cutting-edge character, however, stemmed from three innovations. First, universal documentation no longer meant simply gathering heterogeneous images of various origins, but involved structured production harnessed to fulfill a predetermined function. Second, it relied on technical breakthroughs such as the advent of color photography and motion film, which altered human relationship to reality. Lastly, the autochrome, produced on transparent plates, offered the advantage of projecting pictures on screen, for example during talks and seminars, thus making it possible to collate text and image and asserting the latter as a medium of information. The Archives of the Planet thus contributed to the development of visual presentations, or instances of transmission of knowledge to the public, where photography gained importance as a medium of knowledge, and therefore as a document.

Full Moon, 1871 © Lewis Morris Rutherfurd

In the field of science in general, photography had also become indispensable, even as it stirred some heated debates, in particular about its supposed “objectivity.” In disciplines such as astronomy, bacteriology, botany, physiology, and anthropology, photography came to play a dual role as a document: both as an instrument and an archive of knowledge. In the nineteenth century, scientific disciplines were becoming modernized and increasingly positivist: they strived to be more exact by focusing on experimentation and the observation of quantifiable phenomena, from which general laws could be derived. Photography, which makes it possible to register ephemeral phenomena, to perceive farther as well as closer, as well as see the invisible, played a key role in these developments. A few choice examples offer a glimpse into the diversity of its applications: in astronomy, Lewis Rutherfurd’s (1816–1892) impressive photographs of the moon provided a better understanding of the lunar surface; in botany, Anna Atkins (1791–1871) created magnificent albums of plant specimens using the cyanotype process; in physiology, Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) deployed his “chronophotography” to capture, frame by frame, human and animal bodies in motion.

Untitled (Sprinter), After 1893 © Étienne-Jules Marey


By Guillaume Blanc

Guillaume Blanc is a doctoral student in history of photography at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, also teaching at the Catholic University of the West (Angers) and at the University Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée. His recent work includes publications for Transbordeur and Image & Narrative.

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