Saturday, 11 December 2010

Lecture 3 - The Document

Photographs raise questions of power, authenticity and neutrality.
Cliche "the camera never lies?'!


  • Introduce documentary photography and conflict photography
  • Introduce the work of Mass observation , Magnum and the FSA photographers
  • Explore questions of objectivity and subjectivity inherent in documentary practice.
  • Interrogate the authority of the photographic image

Documentary photography has dominated photographic history.  First photo taken by Joseph Nicephore Niepce in 1826; ' View from a window at La Gras'

'I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.' James Nachtwey

This photographer defines his social contract - The camera with a ;concience'  A contract between the audience and the photographer. He evokes a sense of humanity and sees his work as an antidote to war if used well. This is an example of using the camera to improve or change the world

Photographers have diverse styles and cover a broad range of topics and as such are difficult to define.

The DOCUMENT alludes to evidence not be questioned.

Nachtwey takes a stance, a political position which makes his work subjective and persuasive.

Palestine, 2000

Rwanda, 1994

Nachtwey is in the middle of the action which mean inevitably he influences what is taking place.  He tries t align the viewer with the subject creating empathy.

Sudan, 1993

Frances Frith (1857),'Entrance to the temple'

The photograph can create the 'fantasy' us v them.  Particularly in the 19th century showing how 'the others' way of life.

William Edward Kilburn ' The Great chartists meeting at the common' 1848

The photographer has an political agenda so the photograph cannot be a neutral document. Even though the photographer is distanced from the scene which attempts to add to its authenticity.  These photograph have become our history so our history is subjective, skewed by the photographer or commissioner of the photograph.

Roger Fenton (1855) 'Into the valley of the shadow of death'

The Decisive Moment

"Photography achieves its highest distinction - reflecting the universality of the human condition in a never-to-be-retrieved fraction of a second' Cartier- Bresson

The mundane is a subject for photography.  Cartier Bresson became famous for photographing what appears to be the everyday however the photographs were highly composed.

Henri Cartier Bresson 1908-2004

Place de L'Europe, Gare Saint Lazare 1932

He studies his scenes waiting for 'the decisive moment' .  What appear to be 'neutral objective records' are actually artistic.  How much do photographers concern themselves with aesthetics over truth?

Jacob Rils (1888) Bandits Roost

Rils became famous for taking photographs of 'how the other half lives' during the 19th century.  His photographs were very popular has they sensationalised and satisfied the upper class morbid curiousity.

They were composed by Rils and therefore did not offer a neutral perspective.  They offered a curious middle ground between reality (as they were real people in their own environment) and the photographers perspective of this world.

Jacob Rils (1887) 'A growler gang in session(robbing a lush)'

This photograph claims to be caught in the moment however the young boys are posed and the whole scene is staged. He bribed the street kids.  
So although the photographs are artificial representations, because of their popularity, became a depiction of the working classes.

Lewis Hine

A US middle class social campaigner who photographed squalor and poverty to show society the horror to encourage reforms to be introduced

Lewis Hine, Russian Steel workers, Homestead PA 1908

His photographs were subtle, neutral  and demonstrate empathy.  They record he plight of the immigrant worker and their working conditions.  The people are not depicted as characters

Lewis Hine 1908 'Child labourers in glassworks. Indiana'
So the Documentary Photographer either attempts to represent people honestly to the world or stamp his own representation on people.

FSA photographers (1935-1944)

Each FSA photographer was given a shooting script so the photographs were staged

Margaret Bourke-Whaite ' Sharecroppers Home' 1937

The photograph is meant to be emotive set in a 'shack' with newspaper walls conoting 'the little boy and  sad puppy are surrounded by common culture'

Russel Lee, 1939 'Interior of a Black Farmers House'
This photograph could be read the same way as the previous photograph however the message is not as forced.
Despite the aims of this agenda to ultimately improve lives, this photography is close to propaganda.

Dorothea Lange 1936 'Migrant mother'

This photograph became the image of 'the Great Depression'
Parallels can be made between this and the 'Madonna and Child'.  An aesthestic decision was made to use this pose.

At the time the FSA photographer had to send back all their negatives to the government who then selected the ones which fitted their agenda. We can now see all the photographs which gives a more objective view.  The photograph above was rejected possibly because the subject was seen as too distant and emotional.

We can now see how the photographer arranged and posed her photographs until she found the required composition. 

'The victim' was chosen over the more standoffish confident pose below
Walker Evans preferred the image below as it connoted 'socialist' radical.

Floyd Gudger

Walker Evans

There is a social agenda behind a lot of his work even though it apparently depicted every day life in the 1930's.  The photographs were in fact stylised and 'arty'

Walker Evans, 'Graveyard, houses  and steel Mills, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania' 1935
"The life cycle - mortality"

Robert Franks 'Parade - Hoboken, New Jersey' 1958
Robert Franks had a similar agenda to Walker Evans.

The "colonial agenda"
Photography used to scrutinise and document 'the other'

Voyeuristic used to justify imperialism Black v White' "power'

This photography was disguised as scientific in Victorian times but was used to compare and contrast. "Othering' had the same agenda as Ris but was disguised as a scientific pursuit.

John Lamprey (1868) 'Front & profile views of a malayan male'

Photography used to scrutinise.

Cesare Lombroso 1889 - 

A photographer who was commissioned to photograph all criminals who were arrested and convicted.  This was an experiment to establish scientifically the physical profile of criminals

'Portrait of melancholy' c 1890

Mass Observation 1937-1960's

The Mass observation exercise provided a 'stereotype' of the working class.  This is a reflection of the "power" of the photograph.  the exercise attempted to be neutral using a variety of photographs and was a more accurate reflection was there was so many people involved


In war, the stakes are raised ie life and death so the photographer's role becomes more dangerous and important.

Robert Capa "Normandy France 1945

He was questioned about the blurring in this photo in terms of was this an aesthetic style or because of the bombs surrounding him?


Founded in 1947 by Cartier- Bresson & Capa.
Ethos of documenting the world & its social problems
Internationalism & Mobility

A collaborative group documenting the world for humanity but also about 'style'

Robert Capa 'The Falling Soldier' 1936

Nick t 1972 'Accidental Napalm attack'

Don Mc Cullen 1968 'Shell Shocked Soldier'
Ronald Haeberle My Lai Massacre 1969

These people are about to be shot! Photo completely preserved and interpreted this seconds before their death.Should the photographer have intervened?  

William Klein St Patrick's Day Fifth Ave 1954

William Klein Broadway and 103rd Street New York

William Klein Dance in Broadway 1955

Bernd & Hilla Becher

Conceptual Art

Richard Long 1981 A long Line and tracks in bolivia

Vito Acconci Seedbed 1972

Critical realism

A photograph of a Krupp factory or the AEG says practically nothing about these institutions.  Reality itself has shifted into the realm of the functional.  The rectification of human relationships such as the factory no longer betrays anything about these relationships. And so what we actually need is to 'construct something', something "artificial 'Posed'

Andreas Gursky 1999 '99 cent'

Jeff Wall 1992 Dead troops 

Gillian Wearing 'Signs that say what you want them to say' 1992-3

Jeremy deller 'the battle of Orgreave' 2001

Jeremy Deller 2001 ' he battle of Orgreave' die Mike Figgis UK Artangel/ channel 4

DON McPhee 1984

Key Features of Documentary photography

They offer a humanitarian perspective
They tend to portray social & political situations
They purport to be objective to the facts of the situation - Although this is disputable
People tend to form the subject matter
The images tend to be straightforward & unmanipulated

'Recording or exposing photographs representations of people'

Tom Harrison (anthropologist)
Charles Madge (poet)
Humphrey Jennings (filmmaker)
Humphrey Spender (photographer)
         A social project carried out in 1937 which was both political and scientific.  It attempyted to provide a truthful depiction of society.  People were asked to keep diaries and photographs of their own world. 

Director Roy Stryker
Depression- 11 million unemployed
Mass migration of farm labourersOakies
The photograph as both photojournalism and emotive lobbying tool

The US had a social crisis to manage and they used the FSA to cement the plight of migrants.  These photographs were used as a lobbying tool with the government to raise funds.  The photograph with a SOCIAL AGENDA.  The lazy rich v honest poor

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