is all photography documentary? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

i "record" the world around me, and i consider myself a documentary photographer. even my experimental work i consider to be a document of something ...

is ALL photography documentary photography?

-- john nanian (, January 13, 2002


No photography is a total document, since the photographer's vision informs the image. Your choice of framing, depth of field, lens, format, print, as Mark Citret writes " where to stand and where to put the edges"--all that influences the image.

-- Bob Moulton (, January 13, 2002.

Well it is a document of something, even if the something is abstracted to reveal another possible meaning or the something is entirely created for the sole purpose of the photograph. But in general I havet o say no, not all photography is documentary in nature. All photography is both documentary and expressive . This is the essential dual nature of the photographic medium of communication. my experience with my own phofography and with viewing the photographic works made by others is that the deeper their involvement in it the more expressive and less purely documentary it becomes and for a few of us we are able to go so far that the documentary aspect comes back into play but in such a way that the metaphoric ("expressive") aspect of the world tht is documented is more apparent. But this metamorphosis and growh in vision only comes about through conscious choice.

Look at the first sentence of your post: "i "record" the world around me, and i consider myself a documentary photographer." You are not of course, automatically photographically recording the entirity of the world around you but are choosing what you feel moved ("inspired"? "stimulated"? "motivated"?) to make a photograph of, to "document". You frame the image in a non-random way, you choose when and where you want to make an image, and to certain degree you choose where to place the camera in relation to the world when you make thse images. By doing all of this you are expressing your point of view about that person, place or object. It only works ("is a good phootgraph") if others can grab on to the metaphoric content and relate it to their lifes and experiences, Those others maynot be your contemporaries or your immediate peers, but that is a very good placeto start. One hundred years from today someone may look at that image and read new and different meanings into the image given their particular intellectual and other worldly circumstances, but it still needs an immediate resonance to survive that long. After all Shakespeare wrote for his time but we are still going to plays and movies based very firmly in his writings, we now find much to admire in the painting of Rembrandt and van Gogh (who was completely ignored in his time), and are delighted by the photographic portraits Julia Cameron made of her circle of friends.

Apologies for rambling on likethis, but my point is this; the photographs you make are as much a documentary of your internal world as they are of an external world and you have to honor that truth..

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, January 13, 2002.

All attempts to document something are by their nature subjective (except perhaps a robotized scanning camera). What is considered "documentary" is more of a stylistic difference. The old newsreels of the 1930's - 1960's or Life magazine seem terribly hokey and stylized today, but they were the state-of-the-art mass market documentary media of their time. I think the most consistently appreciated attribute of a documentary style is that it communicates clearly and consistently to the viewer. But there are so many ways of "documenting" a thing, person or event that no one medium or style will ever cover more than a fraction of the event. There are over 10,000 non-fiction books "documenting" the life and work of William Shakespeare. If you are achieving in your own mind a fraction of the feeling of the thing, persons or events you are photographing in your images than you are succesful or on the road to it. By the way the best way to be non-documentary is to shred documents like Arthur Andersen Accounting did of Enron's audit.

-- Phil Glass (, January 13, 2002.

To document is to record veracity. A documentary photograph is created when you click the shutter, always, according the constraints of the physical universe you have placed on the record at the moment. What you do with it after that determines whether the image remains documentary or moves on to something else. In most cases, since we do not elaborate what has happened to the image after it is taken, most photos (paradoxically which are not snapshots) are not documentary, but have moved on to "something else". Quicksand, semantic quicksand. Be forwarned :)

-- Paul Coppin (, January 13, 2002.

Are you reallyasking what defines "documentary photography" as opposed to "photojournalism", "fine art", "industrial", "photo-illustration (AKA advertising)" and other such categories that are primarily defined by academics, curators, collectors, and critics?

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, January 13, 2002.

ellis, i guess that is kind of what i am asking, but not really ... i am having a hard time actually putting my thoughts into words

i was wondering if people who make nature photographs, and people that take product shots / still lifes for catalogs are all making documentary images. does manipulation of exposure (filtration &c) , context ( natural setting, man made context in a studio ) and printing / cropping and manipulation in a darkroom automaticly make the images non-documentary. thanks!

-- john nanian (, January 13, 2002.

"The term "documentary photography" has been used to describe an immense array of visual styles, genres, and commitments. Roy Stryker, Chief of the Historical Section of the Depression-era U.S. Farm Security Administration, shaped one of the most well known contributions of documentary photography. He dispatched a staff of photographers, including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn, to capture the relationship between rural poverty and improper land use, the decline of the small farming community, and the growth of urban decay. Documentary photography has been characterized as the social conscience presented in visual imagery. Stryker has provided a simple, broad, and powerful definition of documentary photography: "the things to be said in the language of pictures." . This definition cames from

There is another intriguing set of definitions at Pat Brady's "One Out of Many, Regionalism in FSA Photography" University of Virginia website which include's Ansel Adams' defition of documentary photography as ""the type of photography which interprets the social scene in the way of commentary" .

if you do a search with the parameters of defition of documentary photography, no doubt you will find other things to think about. My personal definition of "documentary photography is very close to A. Adams but includes more subject matter than just "the social scene".

All photography by definition involves choosing where you stand physically and what you choose to point the camera at, what you decide to leave out of the frame 9this is as important as what you choose to leave in), and of course an entire matrix of technical choices ranging from film type and filters to lens length and finally to an entire range of darkroom manipulation possibilities starting with: do I bother developing this image?

In general I would say that for a photograph to be considered in the documentary range there has to be a social or historical context the image can be related to.

But what really do I know? I am just a photographer and these labels are only of concern to me if they give me a framework to work within.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, January 13, 2002.

Quicksand. I would argue that the definition at the Brady site is wrong. Documentation cannot interpret, by definition. Here we are again I think where a popular usage is attempting to redefine a concept. In the realm of commercial journalism, a "documentary" has come to mean (and be) an extended form of photojournalism, which serves to extend a particular viewpoint through "interpretation" Honest documentaries are extremely difficult to produce, partly because we cannot be entirely free from our own biases, however benign.

-- Paul Coppin (, January 13, 2002.

while I agree that the isuue is "quicksand". I also think you are wrong in your assertion that "Documentation cannot interpret, by definition." A compilation of images, or documents, can be structured to make a specific point. This goes back at least to Jacob Riis photographs of poverty and child labor in new York City, the work of the FSA, and continuing on through the work of W. Eugene Smith, Bruce Davidson, Eugene Richards, Susan Meiselas, Robert Adams, William Klett, and so on all the way up to Joel Meyerwitz's ongoing photography of the site of the former World Trade Center in New York City. My point is that to make sense out of chaos there needs to be an organizing principle and that inherent in that principle is an interpretation, and inside that principle is an idea.

If you agree with this approach the question then becomes what differentiates the documentary approach from mere propaganda?

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, January 14, 2002.

Ellis, I agree with you. One can pretend that a camera has an innocent eye, without "interpretation"; but we all know that photographs come from the mind--i.e., the intention--of the photographer. The very act of framing an image is a gesture towards structuring reality. More to the point, the term "documentary photography" is meaningful only in an historical context. It has nothing to do with document in the sense of unbiased information. I would say that the difference between propaganda and documentary photograph is also historical, in that propaganda has traditionally meant to fool masses of people into believing something that is known to be false. There may be some instances of overlap between the two concepts, but in general documentary photography illustrates a story that will help to publicize a clear social ill. Without basic veracity, documentary photography makes no sense.

-- Michael Alpert (, January 14, 2002.

In looking at the discussion between Paul and Ellis, I would also have to agree that true documentation cannot interpret. Doing so would only "taint" the image with subjective qualities.

I remember a photography student at the university who tried to deal with such issues in his work. In trying to use the camera as a "tool to document", he had set up a system for determining what location to photograph, when to photograph and which direction to photograph. The determining factor to photograph a location was made by a small piece of paper that was dropped from standing height and would randomly flake down onto a large gridded city-map on the floor. Where the paper fell determined the coordinates where he would photograph next. Using his city as his subject, he would always photograph at the same time of day, using the same camera, same tripod height, same film, and at first, with the same exposure. His system was quite complex, standardizing the entire procedure and after a series of hundreds of 16x20 prints, it was quite interesting to see what had been captured by his camera. Sometimes things where totally out of frame, with cars or people moving into or out of the image.

Initially, he had standardized the exposure to only one setting, but after a series of shots, it became evident that innappropriate exposures began to interfere with the project.

Although he couldn't eliminate all the decision making processes, as the system itself was a decision, he had brought photography to the most objective level he could think of, removing most of the subjective aesthetic choices in everday photography. Interesting.

-- Dave (, January 14, 2002.

so if i am understanding you correctly, the only way to have a "true" documentary photograph would be to automate the whole process. to take all the thinking and thought processes out of the whole image making process ... and as soon as an agenda is afixed to a photograph or series of images, it becomes propaganda of one sort or another. is the only way to make documentary images by printing film from a surveilence camera?

i had been under the impression that a visual record of time and place was the same thing as a documentary photograph and that document and record were pretty much the same thing.

-- john nanian (, January 14, 2002.

i realize now after i submitted my last message that even if one printed film from a survelience camera there would be some thinking - editing, framing &c involved. i guess it would have to be printed by a robot or automated mini-lab or something .. :)

-- john nanian (, January 14, 2002.


The photography student you described was a young innocent, so I'm not really as critical of this work as what I am about to say might imply. John Cage worked with chance for decades, but he never ever thought of it as "objective," as opposed to "subjective." With chance operations, those are not the operative terms. There were just as many deliberate choices in the project you describe as there would be in a project where a student made straight-forward point-by-point decisions while attempting to create traditional documentary photographs. It is good fun to pretend that one's ego is not involved in one's actions. From my perspective, this project was neither deep nor wide. Plus, if this was a class in photography, I am left to wonder what the student really learned, compared with a more stringent project where the student might be asked to get out into the world beyond adolescent ego. If this student were interested in philosophical concepts of intentionality, the student would certainly have benefited from a course in phenomenology. Anyway, all of this does not have much to do with documentary photography, though it is entertaining in its youthfulness.

-- Michael Alpert (, January 14, 2002.

To answer your original question John: Yes all photography is documentary photography but even in a completely random system there is still an author or curatorial voice, and that voice belongs to the viewer who structures according to his or her own experience of the image(s), experiences and prejudices.,P>In this discussion I fear we have gone into the stage where the discussion has degenerated to mere rhetorical dogs chasing sophilistic cats. Go out and start making pictures for a month and then let's resume the discussions.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, January 14, 2002.

...John, sure these discussions are rhetoric, however, I feel such discussions help to shift perspectives slightly...enough to allow you to think about photography in a different way:)

-- Dave (, January 14, 2002.

read Doing Documentary Work by Robert Coles.

...."Robert Coles, a child psychiatrist whose series of books on children won him a Pulitzer Prize, has turned his watchful eye to the nature of the documentary and produced a thought-provoking book. In somewhat the manner of James Faris's recent study, Navajo and Photography, Coles reveals how documentarians like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans edited and cropped their images to produce a desired effect, and raises the question of authenticity versus manipulation. Lange, the subject of a previous biographical study by Coles, comes under close scrutiny as he contrasts her iconic image of a migrant mother with obscure photographs shot moments earlier. The author also recalls James Agee's self-critical appraisal of his and Evans's "insensitivity" and "arrogance" in pursuing an editorial assignment....."

-- tim atherton (, January 14, 2002.

yes and so what? Just because a photographer doesn't portray the subject in a way that the subject is comfortable with doesn't mean the work produced is false. Irember the old saying "a photograph never lies" well there is a corollary "..but photographers do all the time." All you can do as someone who makes "documentary phootgraphs" is honor your own sense of what is true to the people or to the issue you are photographing. just remember no single set of photographs can ever contain the entire truth about anything. "Hamlet" is true even though it is a fiction. Richard Avedon considers all of his portraits to be "fictions." My feeling is that 'truth" itself is a lie we create to make sense of the world and it is a well known philosophical concept that perhaps the physical world itself is a mere shadow of the real (AKA "plato's cave").

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, January 14, 2002.

yes and so what? Just because a photographer doesn't portray the subject in a way that the subject is comfortable with doesn't mean the work produced is false. Irember the old saying "a photograph never lies" well there is a corollary "..but photographers do all the time." All you can do as someone who makes "documentary phootgraphs" is honor your own sense of what is true to the people or to the issue you are photographing. just remember no single set of photographs can ever contain the entire truth about anything. "Hamlet" is true even though it is a fiction. Richard Avedon considers all of his portraits to be "fictions." My feeling is that 'truth" itself is a lie we create to make sense of the world and it is a well known philosophical concept that perhaps the physical world itself is a mere shadow of the real (AKA "plato's cave").

I have to go now. there are more tales to tell. And photography is a story teller's medium.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, January 14, 2002.

After having followed several rather philosophical threads, I dare to come with my question that has been haunting me since a long time: Why are we so concerned, if not obsessed by a perfect sharpness of our photographs?

-- Emil Salek (, January 15, 2002.

OOps!!!, I pressed a wrong button to launch the thread. Sorry for that! Please diregard this question here.

-- Emil Salek (, January 15, 2002.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ