Legacy documentary for social change – Research Point – Socially committed B&W photographers

Here we are advised to complete our own research into some of the photographers already discussed..wooohooo did that as I was going along! However, I have now got to consider if social documentary work was their prime focus and how they all fit together…

Chris Killip – Documented the political and social changes in working class communities around Britain as major industries closed down in the 70’s and 80’s. His work focused on unemployment and the hardship that followed. He embedded himself within the communities and shot in B&W. He continued to do so until  the early 1990’s; the Pirelli work would be the “last and very necessary piece of the jigsaw puzzle” of Killip’s work in Britain. In September 1991 he took a teaching position at Harvard University. Killip seemed to be more interested in showing what the realities of life were and the repercussions of political decisions rather than being a social advocate rooting for change.

Exit group – Formed in 1973 the collaboration were concerned with social problems such as poverty, racism, religion and unemployment in 70’s and 80’s Britain.  These three photographers: Nick Battye, Paul Trevor and Chris Steele-Perkins, understood exactly what difficulties were being faced by society when they  decided to collaborate and produce the book The Survival Programme In Britain’s Inner Cities (Open University Press, 1982). They also embedded themselves with the community and shot in B&W. However, they seemed to be documenting the situation rather than being social activists.

Nick Battye had a varied career: poet, photographer, mystic, therapist, teacher, sadly he died on 12 November 2004.

Paul Trevor – revisited areas from the initial book creating a new body of work, Like you’ve never been away. Between 1973 and 2000 Paul worked on the Eastender Archive, ‘an extensive project which offered a personal record of the changing community near his home in Brick Lane, East London. Several of these photographs were included in the London Street Photography exhibition, at the Museum of London in 2011.’

Chris Steele-Perkins – has remained in photography and is part of the Magnum stable, winning many accolades. He has continued to shoot social documentary, these days in colour, in this country and abroad, but seems to record rather than be a social activist.

Bill Brandt – was a not a native to the UK,  but by shooting images of his Uncle’s household and family members, he too was partially photographing what he knew or was embedded in. His documentary work in a pre WWII era focused  on the social divide. After a time Brandt moved away from social documentary and into the surrealist art genre.

Jacob Riis –  was a self-taught photographer who saw the injustice within NY slums. Riis was not a photographer first – he used the medium to illustrate his book, as a way of exposing the hardships in the slums, and in order to gain support and promote social change. Riis went on to write many other books: (1900), The Battle With the Slum (1902), Children of the Tenements (1903), and autobiography, The Making of an American (1901). He was more of a social campaigner who used photography as a tool than a social documentary photographer, even if his images began the tradition…

Lewis Hine – was a  photographer, sociologist and humanist studying and  teaching at the Ethical Culture School in New York City.  In 1908 Hine published Charities and the Commons, a collection of photographs of tenements and sweatshops. Hine hoped he could use these photographs to help bring about social reform.

Lewis Hine was trained to be an educator in Chicago and New York. A project photographing on Ellis Island with students from the Ethical Culture School in New York galvanized his recognition of the value of documentary photography in education. Soon after, he became a sociological photographer, establishing a studio in upstate New York in 1912.

For nearly ten years Hine was the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, contributing to exhibitions and the organization’s publication, The Survey. Declaring that he “wanted to show things that had to be corrected,” he was one of the earliest photographers to use the photograph as a documentary tool. Around 1920, however, Hine changed his studio publicity from “Social Photography by Lewis W. Hine” to “Lewis Wickes Hine, Interpretive Photography,” to emphasize a more artistic approach to his image making. Having joined the American Red Cross briefly in 1918, he continued to freelance for them through the 1930s. In 1936 Hine was appointed head photographer for the National Research Project of the Works Projects Administration, but his work for them was never completed. His last years were marked by professional struggles due to diminishing government and corporate patronage, and he died in 1940 at age sixty-six.

Unlike many of the other photographers, who were open with their work, Hine often had to hide his intentions. especially from factory owners.


So…there are similarities and differences between all of these photographers. They all documented poverty, the effects of government policies and laws, or no policies and laws. They all shot their initial work in B&W, either through lack of technological advancement, or though choice/tradition. Some like Riis were accidental photographers. Some were out for active social reform whilst others were interested in showing the results or their anger at the injustice of it all. Some remained within the field, others did not. Their work may have moved from out of the realm of ‘documentary’ to historical document or art but as Sontag observed: Socially concerned photographers assume that their work can convey some kind of stable meaning, can reveal truth…the photograph is, always, an object in a context…meaning is bound to drain away…and become progressively less relevant,’ she discusses how they become ‘supplanted by subsequent uses…by the discourse of art into which any photograph can be absorbed.’ (2008, p.106)  Whatever their eventual role, the end result is a legacy for historians and photography students alike.


‘The time of Chris Killip’ (2012) Available at: http://davidcampany.com/chris-killip-work/ (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Lewis W. Hine (American, 1874 – 1940) (Getty museum) (no date) Available at: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1566/lewis-w-hine-american-1874-1940/ (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

NYPL, photography collection, Hine: Empire state building (no date) Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20070308123219/http://www.nypl.org/research/chss/spe/art/photo/hinex/empire/biography.html (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

PAUL TREVOR (no date) Available at: http://paultrevor.com/projects (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Paul Trevor’s biography – Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool museums (2016) Available at: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/exhibitions/paultrevor/biography.aspx (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Photographers’Gallery, T. (2016) Books – the photographers’ gallery. Available at: http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/pirelli-work#-Description (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Simkin, J. (1997) Lewis Hine. Available at: http://spartacus-educational.com/IRhine.htm (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Sontag, S. (2008) On photography. London: Penguin Classics.

Steele-Perkins, C. (2014) About – Chris Steele-Perkins – magnum photographer – London. Available at: http://www.chrissteeleperkins.com/about/ (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

(No Date) Available at: http://www.biography.com/people/jacob-riis (Accessed: 21 December 2016).


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