Documentary Photography

Journey at Home Day 67


Grierson points out that documentary is an “anti-aesthetic” movement. Although one could argue that there is no aesthetic other than the story, the best documentary photographs do in fact follow the principles of good photography. Westcott remarked that aesthetically enjoyable photographs caused him to look at an image longer; a great looking image turns out to be “better propaganda.” For example, Dorthea Lange’s Tractored Out, shown below, was obviously shot with the lighting in mind so that the contours are emphasized. I think the same can be said for her other photos (see Broke, baby sick, and car trouble! which has a great leading line that communicates the desolation of the situation and her famous Migrant Mother , shown below,which uses available light perfectly to highlight the troubled look of the woman.) Images from Wikimedia Commons.


Documentary photography, then and now, records a condition, at a moment in time, at a specific place, so that the maker can communicate that moment to viewers either in the future or who live in other locations or under different circumstances. The methods seem to be unchanged, as the maker typically seeks to record the subject in an unstaged and direct manner. The image, or set of images, seeks to tell a story. Documentary images typically show context to help the story. For example, in Rehabilitation Client, Boone County, Arkansas by Ben Shahn (image below) we get a glimpse of the meager housing in which the family lives. The woman is not posed. We see her worries. We wonder about her nutrition. We see the children’s somber expressions and wonder if they play. (Image from Library of Congress)



A documentary image doesn’t need to be newsworthy. However, news images can be considered a subset of documentary. News is driven by economics (the ability to sell news content), by the need for public to learn of something (election results and pandemics), and immediacy of a story (car crash or the birth of a new Royal). Some news events later bloom into documentary stories. For example, see This Girl Tròn: The Forgotten Subject of Vietnam War Photographer, by Larry Burrows (Life, 1968) or Children of 9/11, Following Their Fathers’ Last Footsteps, by Anne Barnard and Calla Kessler (New York Times, 2019).


There will be a need for documentary photography for as long as there are social justice causes, dying cultures, decaying towns, disasters, and moments of achievement and triumph. The distribution methods have changed since the early 20th century, but the need remains. In the past, magazines such as Life and agencies such as the WPA commissioned documentary stories. In the 21st century, a lot of documentary work is done as film but the practice of documentary photography lives on. Online media outlets now exist and print publications have not completely died. Some galleries specialize in documentary exhibitions. Some makers self-publish. For example, see Jim Goldberg’s recent publication Gene, a story of a man who is entering an assisted living facility. Magnum which started in 1947, has such projects as Diary of a Pandemic (2020) and Postcards from America (2015). Many nonprofits use documentary images to communicate their work, such as Partners In Health and Barefoot College’s Solar Mama project. Documentary images are our history. They are likely more truthful and less biased than any written historical accounts.

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