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A History of Documentary Photography, Part II

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. Here, historian Guillaume Blanc continues his in-depth look at what many consider to be the nobility of photography. Read the first part of the course here if needed.

Social issues: Documentation as reform

Even as photography was making breakthroughs in tandem with science, the nineteenth century was also a testing ground for photography from a sociological perspective. As major Western cities were modernizing, seeking to improve urban planning methods, safety, and hygiene, increased attention was being paid to the poorest and the most vulnerable. The assumption was that a robust urban environment was at odds with the deplorable living conditions suffered by the working classes. Photography came to play an important role in understanding those strata of the society by portraying the dilapidated, unsanitary dwellings and indigent livelihood, proving much more effective in raising awareness than the written word.

Empire State Building, New York, 1931 © Lewis Hine

Lewis Hine (1874–1940), a teacher and sociologist, sought to deploy photography as a document to prop up his investigative approach. He developed a completely different relationship with his subjects, one based on benevolence rather than predatory tactics. His first major series, Climbing into America, begun in 1904, portrayed waves of immigrants detained for quarantine at Ellis Island. While New York residents had the tendency to spin outlandish tales about the new arrivals and imagine them in the worst light, thereby feeding a growing xenophobia, Hine sought through his photographs to inspire empathy and respect, rather than fear. With tender portraits, sometimes adopting classical art-historical forms, such as Madonna and Child, he pioneered sensitive documentary photography that appealed to the viewer’s emotions.

He followed the same strategy in 1906, when he began working for the National Child Labor Committee, a collaboration that would last twelve years. It is estimated that there were two million children forced to work in the United States at the time: it was therefore necessary to rally public opinion behind a total ban on child labor and the condemnation of the “employers.” Photography thus recovered its evidentiary value: every time Hine pictured an illegally employed child he added to the body of evidence against child labor. At the same time, his images were infused with emotion that helped sensitize the public to the living and working conditions of child laborers. As he had done in his photographs of immigrants, Hine supplemented his images with written observations, which operated on the dual register of evidence and emotion.

Madonna and Child, Ellis Island, 1908 © Lewis Hine

Hine took pains to present his images in various formats: from talks accompanied by slide shows to posters, publications, and even exhibitions, and he never shrank from using advertising methods to promote and disseminate his work. He developed the concept of photo story, a kind of visual narrative punctuated by text, which, as a sociologist, he had come to consider as the heart of documentary practice. 

The union of image and text became commonplace in the interwar period, as the press became the main outlet for documentary photography, especially in the form of illustrated photo reportage, which pooled the talents of journalists, experts, or writers and photographers. However, in the 1930s, as the discipline of documentary photography became more clearly defined, it sparked renewed debates, in particular about style. Once a diffuse practice developed in disparate environments, documentary photography was gaining ground. The interwar period was marked by two phenomena that favored this development: on the one hand, the awakening of social and political consciousness in the face of the Great Depression in the United States; on the other hand, the growing recognition of photography as an art form in the context of European avant-garde movements, such as Surrealism. Documentary photography, as noted by the historian Olivier Lugon, was thus presented with the opportunity of a twofold reform—social and artistic—seen as the medium’s “capacity for renewal.”

Messenger Boy for Mackay Telegraph Company, Waco, Texas, 1913 © Lewis Hine

The adjective “documentary,” as applied in the film industry to refer to an unvarnished representation of reality, in contrast to Hollywood studio films, emerged in 1928. It was very quickly picked up in photography, in English as well as French and German. From this point forward, the documentary form was built around the need to bear witness to facts while avoiding the pitfall of superficial representation and mustering creativity. 

This renewed approach was best exemplified in the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) photography program, which led to the emergence of documentary photography as a genre in its own right. The FSA was created in 1935 as part of the New Deal, a series of reforms and policies enacted to address the economic crisis and in particular to aid small American farmers. Headed by the economist Roy Stryker, the FSA’s ambitious photographic program espoused two major documentary trends by proposing both a social testimony, rooted in the now, and a heritage survey, oriented toward the future. Among some fifteen recruited photographers, four stand out as keenly attuned to the issues at stake: Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and Dorothea Lange. 

Arthur Rothstein’s (1915–1985) photography was characterized by a narrative flow and emotional effects: he deployed a variety of resources, such as angles of view, dramatic lighting, and even scenarios prepared in advance. He assumed that one could dress up or rearrange reality in order to portray it more effectively. Such lax approach, however, came with its dangers: Rothstein was not only criticized for aestheticizing poverty but also met with the accusations of producing false documentation, for example in his use of an ox skull—a symbol of drought and the plight of farmers—which he placed against various backgrounds. Stryker, however, firmly stood behind him: he, too, resorted to shooting scripts, a kind of photographic scenarios he would assign his photographers. 

Ben Shahn (1898–1969), on the other hand, was influenced by his professional practice as a painter. In the vein of social realism, in vogue in the left-wing artistic circles at the time, he sought out subjects that allowed him to strike a balance between a symbolic dimension and an objective representation of reality

Migrant mother, 1936 © Dorothea Lange

Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) was one of the most influential FSA photographers. She started out as a studio photographer, but in the 1930s, herself an indirect victim of the crisis, she became interested in the life of the street. In 1935, she began collaborating with Paul S. Taylor, a professor of political economy who later became her husband. Together, they developed a technique of combining text and images, which allowed them to harness photography as a vehicle for informative messages which guided the interpretation of the image. She took up the same idea in her work for the FSA, producing some of the most powerful images of the program. Lange’s work shows great sensitivity and a genuine concern about the issues at hand. She had a taut relationship with Stryker, who had the last word in the choice of images, but Lange used it to her advantage to produce a book-length series An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion, co-authored with her husband. The volume possesses a cinematic quality in that it furnishes the photographic images with a “voice-over”—a running commentary that provides a theoretical background as well as human testimony. By directly quoting the people featured in the photographs, it hews as close as possible to the reality.

Like Lange, Walker Evans (1903–1975) forged a unique position that would be a milestone in the history of documentary photography. Freely interpreting Stryker’s assignment, Evans extended the program’s remit into the documentation of American vernacular culture at large. His photographs adopted a distinctive style dependent on the use of a large-format camera, meticulous attention to detail, clarity of contours, and frontal composition, which lent the image a sense of neutrality. Evans’s approach may thus seem contradictory: while espousing the erasure of authorial presence or intervention, he turned this absence into his trademark. He thus advanced the idea that the photographic document not only has a function (which is to bear witness) but also a form. He coined the deliberately modern term “documentary style,” and took the idea even further in his 1938 MoMA exhibition American Photographs. In the exhibition catalog, the photographs are presented free of text, the captions relegated to the end of the book. The images must speak for themselves—an approach that is the opposite of Lange’s. The diversity of images (portraits, street scenes, architectural views, advertisements …) amounts less to a report on a subject than to the big picture of the state of American culture in the 1930s. The same principle of empowering the images governed the creation of the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, co-authored with the writer James Agee, produced in 1936 and published in 1941. Evans’s images are presented in a plate section at the beginning of the book, without any text, and provide an imaginary backdrop to the novel that follows. Evans’s innovative approach established documentary photography as an art form in its own right.

Roadside stand near Birmingham, Alabama, 1936 © Walker Evans

If the FSA was able to leave a lasting mark on the history of documentary photography, it was thanks to the scope of its project and to the skills and dedication of the photographers involved. The FSA program was above all a collective endeavor, which remains an important aspect of social documentary. In line with left-wing reformist ideas, the primacy of the collective over the author’s individuality makes it possible to posit the artist’s self-effacement for the sake of a bigger cause. 

As early as the 1920s, we can observe an international, working-class photography movement propelled by the Communist Party. The Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ, Workers’ Illustrated Daily), published in Germany from 1926 to 1933, was part of that movement: workers were asked to produce their own documentation and describe their working conditions in real terms.

The idea of workers’ self-expression made its way to the United States, where a Workers Film and Photo League was created in 1930. Headed by Paul Strand and Berenice Abbott, it possessed two distinctive features: members of the working class would ensure their own documentation and documentary photography would be deployed alongside film. Five years after its creation, however, the League was split into two distinct organizations, one dealing with cinema, the other with photography, now known simply as The Photo League. The latter was a cooperative of sorts, whose activities were organized around collective documentation projects. The most famous of these, Harlem Document, was run by Aaron Siskind (1903–2001). In contrast to Evans’s approach, the resulting images are tinged with sentimentality: they play on dramatic lighting effects, and the presence of the photographer is more palpable. The career of Aaron Siskind, who abandoned any desire to bear witness and turned to abstract, formal research in the late 1940s, is a clear indication of the change that took place in the field of documentary photography during and after World War II. 

Documentary photography experienced a radical renewal from the 1940s onwards. Its traditional forms, focused on sensitive subjects, were seen as synonymous with the Depression years, and even the use of the term “documentary” was found objectionable. People craved much more lyrical, less ideological photography, which would be capable of painting a picture of everyday postwar life better than any photographic activism of the past. Documentary photography became less concerned with narrowly conceived social issues, and instead began to archive daily life, with each photographer nevertheless developing a predilection for some aspects more than others. France was a fertile ground for this renewal which manifested in what would later be known as humanist photography. 

Robert Doisneau (1914–1992) was one of the movement’s most eminent representatives. Born in the suburbs of Paris, throughout his career he continued to produce humorous images of humble things and ordinary people. Often constructed around polarizing values, Doisneau’s images sought to capture postwar France in the process of modernization and to preserve its picturesque character. This is true, for example, of a series shot from a window, in which Doisneau records the reactions of passersby to an erotic painting, revealing a divide between bourgeois and working-class morals.

The same goes for Willy Ronis (1910–2009), who was particularly fond of narrow, cobbled streets in Paris, notably in a long-term project on the working-class neighborhoods of Belleville and Ménilmontant, where he captured such iconic characters as the child with a baguette. 

The new documentary photography developed through spontaneous photographic writing and traveled back around the world to the United States and elsewhere. The photographers who set a new tone drew in part on literary models. Some of them worked directly with writers, and their work was disseminated through book publications, in addition to illustrating news stories. 

This is the case of the 1956 book Life is Good & Good For You in New York by William Klein (1928–2022). Here, Klein repudiated Evans’s stylistic recommendations and intervened directly on the prints by overprinting and highlighting graphic elements, and thereby blurring the boundary between documentary photography and subjective expression. William Klein deliberately asserted his authorship by offering a singular interpretation of his subject.

Trolley – New Orleans, 1955 © Robert Frank

Adopting a completely different style, the Swiss photographer Robert Frank (1924–2019) published his famous work The Americans in 1958. Comprising eighty-three photographs and regularly re-edited with slight variations, it offers a personal panorama of American postwar society. The angles of view and the subject-matter often point to the photographer’s presence outside the frame. Frank sought to reconstruct his own experience of America, which centered on people of every social class and walk of life.

The Dutch photographer and filmmaker Johan van der Keuken (1938–2001) shared Frank’s interest in portraying a foreign society. Based in Paris, he published Paris Mortel in 1963. The book collates the photographer’s impressions of his walks around working-class Paris, by day and by night. The result is a very personal approach, which emphasizes the spontaneous encounter with the other rather than a search for subjects that would fulfill a readymade project. 

The is also true of Ed van der Elsken (1925–1990), another artist born in the Netherlands. His Love on the Left Bank, published in French in 1956, jettisoned the documentary imperative of representing reality: using photographs of a gang of young people he created a fiction of bohemian life in Paris. In particular, van der Elsken reorganized the image sequence to construct a sort of scenario, and worked on the layout to establish a rhythm, very much inspired by jazz and cinema. Once again, the notion of the document was inseparable from an unabashedly subjective expression.

In the 1960s in the United States, the documentary project was given a new lease on life with the rediscovery of Walker Evans’s work, and, crucially, with the anointing of new representatives of the movement. In 1967, John Szarkowski, the photography curator at MoMA, put together an exhibition entitled New Documents, which showcased three young photographers: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. They stood apart from their predecessors in that, rather than working towards social reform, they sought to capture their own experience of society, viewed with empathy and without a shred of moral judgment. 

Diane Arbus’s (1923–1971) images are instantly recognizable due to their underlying paradox: they approach their subject with both distance and gentleness. Interested in the margins of society, Arbus scouted exceptional yet endearing subjects: transvestites, freaks, dwarves, and her famous twins. In a way, she took over August Sander’s project, but made it her own by concentrating on social outcasts. Thus, as Walker Evans would have said, “Arbus’s style is all about the subject.”

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967 © Diane Arbus

Lee Friedlander (1934-) developed a rather unexpected style in documenting the American city. Rather than trying to emphasize its orthogonal grid pattern, he would track down any element of modern life’s chaos in an attempt to find visual order. By photographing shop windows and reflections, the erratic movements of passersby, or by using original framing, he arrived at a sort of virtuosity that brought his project closer to such art forms as collage and abstract painting. In his documentary practice, Friedlander adopted a modernist attitude, playing on the specificities of the photographic medium.

Garry Winogrand had a background in photojournalism. As a documentary photographer, he felt most at home in city streets, working with wide angles and tilted frames. Winogrand thus reinforced the lines of his composition, modifying the viewer’s customary perception. Speaking of his own work, he noted: “I photograph to see what things look like once they are photographed.” 

If documentary photography, which had its heyday in the interwar period, gradually detached itself from its socio-political commitments, it was partly because the press proved to be a far better medium of protest.

New York, 1966 © Gary Winogrand

Photojournalism: Documentation as information

The history of photojournalism converges on that of documentary photography in that it, too, treats the photograph as a medium of information. However, the two narratives never overlap: in photojournalism, what matters is the event, and thus it is the rhythm of world history that dictates the content. Whether freelancing or employed by an agency, photojournalists must be present at events and bear witness through images. Finally, the main purpose of news photography is to be reproduced in the press, usually side by side with text relating the events in question.  

The history of photojournalism began with the image of an armed conflict. During the French Revolution of 1848, a photographer named Thibault, about whom little is known besides his name, photographed the barricades erected by the revolutionaries in the rue Saint-Maur in Paris. This would be the first photograph ever used in an illustrated newspaper. The reproduction techniques available at the time, however, did not allow for a photograph to be reproduced as such, so it had to be “translated” into an engraving.

It was not until the Crimean War (1853–1856) that the photographic report became a reality. The Illustrated London News printed photographs by Roger Fenton (1819–1869), the first official war photographer commissioned by the British government. Fenton produced a comprehensive report documenting all aspects of the war: the life of the troops, the battlefields, and moments of respite… One of his famous photographs also inaugurated a debate that would continue through the history of photojournalism: Fenton may have staged some of his scenes, against the imperative of objectivity. As his other images prove, he moved cannonballs to arrange them on the road, in order to make them more visible and render the scene more dramatic.

Valley of the shadow of death, 1855 © Roger Fenton

Matthew Brady (1822–1896), who had already made a name for himself with his portraits of American personalities, helped to jumpstart the development of photojournalism. With a team of twenty to help maneuver the extremely bulky equipment, he covered the American Civil War (1861–1865), bringing back nearly 10,000 photographic plates that show every aspect of the war, some styled on classical forms and evoking historical conventions of painting. 

The years 1880–1910 saw great strides being made in photojournalism as it neared its modern form. Several technical innovations helped propel it on its way: first, it was now possible to reproduce photographs using the halftone process. On March 4, 1880, the New York paper The Daily Graphic printed the first press phot without converting it into an engraving. By the end of the century, it was possible to print photographs alongside text, which reduced the time needed to produce an illustrated paper. The second invention, dating to 1887, was the flash, which made it possible to document subjects indoors or in the dark. Finally, in 1913, the Frenchman Édouard Belin (1876–1963) invented a machine he called “Belinograph,” which made it possible for photographs to be transmitted by wire. Thus, all the technical elements were in place that would enable images to keep up with the pace of current events and be disseminated almost instantaneously.

From the 1900s onwards, photojournalism was not only modernized but also reorganized. Photographic agencies were being created, allowing photographers to unionize. Photographs were now being delivered to the agency, which redistributed them to newspapers. The French agency Rol (1904–1937), for example, which initially specialized in covering sports but went on to include all current events, was one of the pioneers in the field. Thanks to such new structures, the press gained a permanent reservoir of images to illustrate their articles. This marked the professionalization of the discipline which was now ready to produce an image of any notable event in the world. 

The following decades are known as the golden age of photojournalism. From the 1930s to 1950s, the appearance on the market of high-quality portable cameras, such as the famous Leica, used in particular by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004), afforded photographers new freedom. At the same time, new types of periodicals sprung up, which emphasized image over text and sometimes had their own staff photographers. Some of these magazines radically altered the conventions of photojournalism. Not only did they offer quality reproductions, which established the reputation of press photography, but they also featured elaborate layouts designed to foreground the image.

LIFE cover on November 23, 1936 © TIME Inc

One such magazine was the weekly LIFE (1936–1972), which launched its first issue with a new formula: it would cover current events while leaving ample space to celebrities, thus contributing to the rise of stardom. LIFE also hired some star photographers and reported on all the most important events in its time. Margaret Bourke-White (1904–1971) made the cover of the debut issue, allowing LIFE to make its mark with its unique visuals and a modernist touch. The June 19, 1944 issue featured photos by Robert Capa (1913–1954)—the only images of the Omaha Beach landings during World War II. As a general rule, LIFE had a penchant for sensational images in terms of either content or form. 

The French magazine VU (1928–1940) came up with a different model. Partly inspired by the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, VU was less concerned with shocking images than with organizing them into a coherent narrative. To that end, they produced numerous photomontages which offered a singular vision of photojournalism. Supplying informative evidence by means of an image that has not been retouched or cropped mattered less at VU than using images the way we use words: to create sequences of visual meaning. The magazine emphasized rhythm over shock in order to encourage reflection.

VU magazine cover, 1934

However, this was not the only economic model, as shown by the already cited example of the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, which relied on amateur contributions to allow people to bear witness to their living and working conditions, rather than having the reality filtered through the lens of a professional who would necessarily be removed from the subject.

Whatever their approach, these magazines had a lasting impact on the history of photojournalism. The format of LIFE, which ran its last issue in the early 1970s, was picked up by other widely circulating magazines that made abundant use of images, such as Paris Match and L’Express in France. These publications brought the great events of the day to their readers, with images that left a permanent mark in contemporary visual culture.

It was not just the magazines that changed format: the photographers, too, began to organize. The Magnum agency’s model speaks volumes: launched in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others, it was founded on the principle of cooperation; run by the photographers themselves, it allowed them to better manage their copyrights and their images. Magnum had a wide resonance in France: the Rapho agency, created in 1933, was reactivated in 1946, bringing together above all humanist photographers, such as Robert Doisneau, Janine Niépce, and Willy Ronis, who, as we have already seen, produced free-spirited reports with little focus on covering a given event. The Gamma agency, founded in 1966, was home to a new generation of photographers such as Raymond Depardon and Gilles Caron. The latter, who was killed in Cambodia in 1970, had a meteoric career, producing some of the most striking images of his time. Caron was present on all battlefronts and covered May 68 uprisings in Paris, as well as the wars in Biafra, Vietnam, and Chad.

Robert Capa, Omaha Beach in LIFE issue of June 19, 1944 © TIME Inc.

Caron was among the proponents of heroic photojournalism, emphasizing the sensational image and personal presence at the frontlines. Don McCullin (1935–) was another photojournalist who viewed his profession as a sacred order, and never shied from war zones. The 1960s and 1970s saw some particularly brutal conflicts, the images of which became seared in people’s minds, symbolizing the horrors of modern warfare, such as the famous shot taken by Nick Ut (1951–) in Vietnam. Photojournalism’s tendency to stir up reaction through shock prevails to this day: one need only think of the recent example of the image of the body of little Aylan washed up on a beach, which epitomizes the pain and violence of the modern world. Such images often win accolades, like the World Press Photo Award which recognizes the best press photograph of the year. Images created by photojournalists are generally considered to exert a real influence on the world, as evidenced by the many lists enumerating the most influential or important photographs. 

The editorial demand for this type of image can be all the more readily satisfied now that digital images allow for an almost-instantaneous distribution and may include contributions made with smartphones by so-called “citizen journalists.” For example, the only images of the London tube disseminated during the 2005 terrorist attacks were made with the victims’ own phones; they were posted on outlets such as Flickr, before being picked up—sometimes in the headlines—by major newspapers.

In contrast to this trend, photojournalism of the 1960s and 1970s was much more moderate, more willing to delve into social issues than tackle dramatic events that required an immediate reaction. The Viva agency, founded on this model, revived a tradition of documentary photography centered on a single subject examined exhaustively over a stretch of time. Its photographers produced images that verged on the intimate and forged close ties with the subject, thus expressing the opposition to any aggressive approach.

At the other end of the spectrum are the paparazzi: they push the boundaries of propriety to obtain pictures which are then sold to the highest bidder. Not only do these images satisfy the craving of the general public, they also contain a display of aggression involved in their production, such as a hand trying to shield the subject’s face.

It should be noted that, nowadays, photojournalism is being tolerated, if not accepted, as an art form in its own right. Photographers such as Gilles Peress (1946–) have collected their work in book form (Telex Persan); others produce large-format prints that, like paintings, enter museum collections, such as Luc Delahaye’s (1962–) photographs

As this brief history shows, documentary photography is the site of technical, formal, ethical, and cultural confluences that have shaped and redefined it over the years. And yet one thing has remained unchanged, namely the informative nature of photography which validates a documentary or news project: in either case, the power of photography is called upon to attest to the truth—be it one truth among many. And because there are as many points of view as there are photographers, approaches to documentary photography have been rich and diverse. While most methods of picturing the world have already been explored and it is increasingly difficult to innovate, anyone can contribute to our knowledge by taking a stand and translating their worldview into photographic images.

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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