What makes a document? – Research Point

I don’t really want to begin with trying to explain what constitutes a document as this is covered a bit further on, so will launch instead into the research point which is to look at the historical developments in documentary photography. To do this I feel it only fair to give a nod to documentary film as well.

Filmsite has an excellent list detailing the different types of categories there are and provides examples of each, this list could quite easily be assigned to different genres of documentary photography eg Biographical, Historic Event,Rock Concert/Festival, A sociological or ethnographic examination following the lives of individuals over a period of time, An expose, An examination of a specific subject area to name a few. Their definition of film documentary is also applicable as” non-fictional, “slice of life” factual works of art.”

Apparently the first ‘documentary’ re-creation was The Unwritten Law (1907) (subtitled “A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy”) This dramatised the true-life murder of a well known architect, Stanford White, by a mentally unstable and jealous husband, Harry Kendall Thaw. The object of both their affections,Evelyn Nesbit,appeared as herself.

However, the first official ‘documentary’ was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), an ethnographic examination of the difficulties faced by Canadian Inuit Eskimos living in the Arctic. Interestingly it is reported that some of the film’s scenes of “obsolete customs” were in fact staged. Despite this Flaherty is  often regarded as the “Father of the Documentary Film.” It was his film Moana (1926) about Samoan Pacific islanders, that garnered the term”documentary” for the first time when reviewed in an article by director/producer/writer John Grierson where he also said it was “the creative interpretation of reality.” You can watch the film Nanook of the North here.

Just as an aside, I got all excited that the same article has a link underneath to the original broadcast of War of the Worlds that people thought was real so I know what I’ll be listening to later!!

But back to the task in hand…therefore with a nod to events and some photographers/images:

Brief Look at Historical Developments in Documentary Photography

things to note – Documentary photographs chronicle significant/historical events. As discovered above the term ‘Documentary’ itself antedates the genre which can be traced back to the 1800s.

1843 – David Octavious Hill creates social documentary photographs – present at the Disruption Assembly in 1843 when over 450 ministers walked out of the Church of Scotland assembly to found the Free Church of Scotland. He decided to record it by using photography, to capture the likenesses of all the ministers present.

1850’s– Missions Héliographiques – in 1851, the Commission des Monuments Historiques, an agency of the French government, selected five photographers to make photographic surveys of the nation’s architectural heritage. Documentary photographers Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan captured the horrors of American Civil War. 1855 – Roger Fenton Crimea War coverage.

1870’s William Jackson was commissioned by the Union Pacific to document the scenery along the various railroad routes he also photographed many Native American Indian tribes as well as the Yellowstone Lake Area which helped convince the U.S. Congress to make it the first National Park in March 1872.

1880’s – New smaller cameras made it easier to take photos of ordinary people’s lives in a less formal way. 1880- The first “Halftone” published in a newspaper.

1890’s – Jacob Riis, his book How the Other Half Lives depicted the slums of New York.- uses it for social reform. W H R Rivers 1898 Torres Straits Expedition.

1900’s – Lewis Hine, like Riis used his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs were instrumental in changing child labour laws in the United States. 1905 the National Geographic changed from being a text-oriented publication closer to a scientific journal to featuring extensive pictorial content. Alfred Stieglitz – The Steerage, 1907. 1909 Albert Khan began his Archives of the Planet, over the next 22 years he sent many photographers to more than 50 countries around the globe to create a visual record.

Easier printing techniques – Newspapers realised that pictures, with easy-to-read captions and short paragraphs would capture the imagination and a new target audience. The Daily Mirror, launched in 1904, was the world’s first newspaper illustrated exclusively with photographs and was an instant success.

1910’s – 1913 Mexican Revolution  was one of the first to have been documented with photography throughout the war.1914 the arrest of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassin.This image is significant due to it’s historical value, this event has been regarded as the beginning point of the first world war. 1914-1918 coverage of WWI. 1917 sees the  development of the first commercial 35mm Leica camera although it was not introduced to the public until 1925.

1920’s –  saw the appearance of weekly picture magazines allowing for several pages to “tell a story and develop a theme through a series of pictures.” Probably the earliest picture magazine was the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (Berlin Illustrated Newspaper) in 1928.Charles Sheeler photographs the Ford factory.

1930’s – The Farm Security Administration – Dorothea Lange , Walker Evans, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn  and other photographers – approximately 30 all told – were briefed to take “persuasive” photographs to cover the effects of the depression on rural slums. Leni Riefenstahl propaganda fims and photography promoted the values of Aryan superiority and Nazi ideology to the world. Henri Cartier-Bresson started capturing the world around him with his small discreet Leica.Bill Brandt published picture books such as The English at Home and A Night in London. He also undertook many Picture Post assignments.

1940’sMagnum-1947, Cartier-Bresson and photographers Robert Capa and David Seymour formed a picture agency called “Magnum”.
Photo Essays -1948  LIFE magazine photo essay, “Country Doctor” by W. Eugene Smith who spent 23 days in Kremmling, Colorado, chronicling the day-to-day challenges faced by  a general practitioner named Dr. Ernest Ceriani.

1950’s –  Photo magazines lose popularity –by the 1950s Picture Post had begun to lose its sense of purpose. Even the introduction of a selection of colour pages proved fruitless. Illustrated closed in 1958, Picture Post in 1957, Look in 1971. LIFE lingered on in more-or-less its original weekly form until 1972. Ken Domon photographs over 7000 images  in and around Hiroshima in 1957. 1958 Robert Franks publishes The Americans.

1960’s – Distortion and Manipulation of Images – although manipulation had been around for a while – huge subject not for here – in the late 1960’s a public execution was held over for 12 hours, as the evening light was too poor for the press to take pictures. 1968 Don McCullin shocks the world with his Vietnam images.

1970’s – Dianne Arbus continues to produce freakish images that she captured throughout the late ’50’s and ’60’s. Joel Meyerowitz began photographing in colour in 1962 and was an early advocate of the use of colour during a time when there was significant resistance to the idea of colour photography as serious art. In the early 1970s he taught the first colour course at the Cooper Union in New York City.Nick Ut – Napalm Girl, 1972. 1976 William Egglestone’s groundbreaking colour exhibition at MoMA

1980’s – Nan Goldin-Feminist photographer noted for her ground-breaking work among minority social groups.1988 Sally Mann begins publishing nude photos of her children. Adobe Photoshop was created in 1988 by Thomas and John Knoll. Jeff Widener – Tank Man, 1989

1990’s – 1991 first digital SLR, a modified Nikon F3. Sebastio Salgado joined Magnum photo agency in 1994, contributing “artistic, meaningful documents of global issues and cultures”, 1994 Martin Parr joins Magnum

2000’s – 2003: Four-Thirds standard for compact digital SLRs introduced with the Olympus E-1; Canon Digital Rebel introduced for less than $1000. 2005 Canon EOS 5D, first consumer-priced full-frame digital SLR, with a 24x36mm CMOS sensor for $3000. In January 2015, The International Academic Forum (IAFOR) announced the launch of the IAFOR Documentary Photography Award – an award which seeks to promote and assist in the professional development of emerging documentary photographers and photojournalists.

Some of the photographers and their images can be seen in this video

By no stretch of the imagination have I managed to include every invention/event/photographer that could have been included, but hopefully this gives a rough idea of how things have evolved and the effects that historical events and technological advancements have had on, not only the production of images, but also our attitudes as to how and why documentary images are made. They are used to inform, manipulate and in some instances amuse. Certain publications and organisations have pushed documentary to the fore and in different directions. Various awards ensure that the tradition of documentary photography continues and try to regulate the overt manipulation of some of the images. Looks to me, that even if difficult to categorise sometimes, Documentary Photography is alive and well!


Cosgrove, B. (2012) W. Eugene Smith’s landmark portrait: ‘Country doctor’. Available at: http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(Cosgrove, 2012)

Curtis, J. (no date) ‘Making sense of documentary photography’, (1).
(Curtis, no date)

Daniel, M. (2000) David Octavius hill (1802–1870) and Robert Adamson (1821–1848) (1840s) | essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of art history | the metropolitan museum of art. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hlad/hd_hlad.htm (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(Daniel, 2000)

Documentary films (2016) Available at: http://www.filmsite.org/docfilms.html (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(Documentary films, 2016)

Graphic, N.Y. (1996) History of photography Timeline. Available at: http://photo.net/history/timeline (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(Graphic, 1996)

International, W.W. (2015) Brief history of documentary photography. Available at: https://whistlingwoodsinternational.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/brief-history-of-documentary-photography/ (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(International, 2015)

jontowlson (2009) Nick Crafts. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/jontowlson/a-short-history-of-documentary (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(jontowlson, 2009)

Ken Domon, Japan’s master of realism, receives first overseas exhibition | the Japan times (2016) Available at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2016/05/27/arts/ken-domon-japans-master-realism-unveils-first-overseas-exhibition/#.WAJ1NvkrLq4 (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(Ken Domon, Japan’s master of realism, receives first overseas exhibition | the Japan times, 2016)

visual-arts-cork (no date) Documentary photography: Characteristics, history. Available at: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/photography/documentary.htm#history (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(visual-arts-cork, no date)

Written (2016) The 2016 IAFOR documentary photography award calls for ‘justice’ entries. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/05/the-2016-iafor-documentary-photography-award-calls-for-justice-entries/ (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(Written, 2016)

Zeiger, M. (2012) A trip through time. Available at: http://www.afar.com/magazine/a-trip-through-time (Accessed: 15 October 2016).
(Zeiger, 2012)


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