Writing on photography

What is Documentary Photography?

Having recently written about the intersections of documentary and art in photographic practice (part I/part II) it struck me as rather foolish that I made almost no attempt to define either of these terms before I began. That said, attempting to define something as broad as ‘art’ is a task I have no intention of taking on in a piece only eight hundred or so words long. However the prospect of discussing the definition and limits of the term ‘documentary’ in relation to photographic practice seems both more realistic for a short blog post, and perhaps more useful.

Documentary photography is a much used term, but few of its users seem to have a particularly concrete or comfortable definition of it. Some treat it as a synonym for photojournalism, but use it so exclusively that it seems to imply some special value, that this other term lacks. Others users seem to treat it in the opposite way, as marking those it is applied to as distinct and even above normal photojournalists (a group who in the eyes of many have rightly or wrongly come to be tainted by the behaviour of the paparazzi). Documentary photographers (or documentarians) are, it seems to be implied, a different species of photographer. These different uses (and I should say non-uses, since some consider it a basically irrelevant term) are maybe less important in themselves than in the way they reveal the lack of consensus or consistency in the use of such a common term. A quick web search for ‘Documentary Photography’ reveals 53,300,000 results, hardly a scientific inquiry but one which gives a sense of it’s prevalence.

As someone who trained as a historian I tend to look backwards in an attempt to understand things as they are now, working through the genealogy of events, images and words in the hope of finding some germ of understanding in their pre-history. I have noted before how for a long time I struggled to comprehend the term ‘aftermath’ until finding in an old dictionary that it once referred to the fresh growth of grass that comes after a harvest, an idea I found in some respects profoundly reassuring. Searching back into the etymology of the word ‘documentary’ maybe offers a few similar clues.

There are various definitions starting from the most recent. The idea of a film with a documentary character in the sense we might now understand (factual, informative) comes from France in 1924, (film documentarie), earlier still in 1810 the term documentary is listed as ‘pertaining to documents’. This shifts us to the root word, document, which seems to have acquired our contemporary understanding (a typically physical artefact with some informational or evidential value) around 1711. This in turn stems from the use of the same word more intriguingly as a verb, meaning ‘to teach’, which originates around 1640. Documents are maybe therefore forms of evidence, often physical, which in some sense appear to teach us something.

This isn’t hugely revealing, and this definition could of course be broadly applied to all photographs. As I noted in my original piece, in a sense all art practice incorporates documentary elements, because all photographs necessarily document something. Even the most abstract photographic images represent some physical thing or process, however far beyond our own way of viewing it has become, however impossible it is interpret what is shown. Taken to an extreme even a photograph taken with the lens cap on is a document of something. The worth of that document is an entirely different question.

Approaching ‘documentary’ from the perspective of its history as a photographic practice is another option, one I employed somewhat in my previous post. I noted Alfred Stieglitz and specifically his photograph Steerage, taken in 1907, which has often been identified as one of the first really important ‘documentary’ photographs. For Stieglitz, what made this photograph most significant was the fusing of a sophisticated aesthetic informed by fine art with a socially significant subject matter perhaps more informed by press photography (in counterpoint to the artistically sophisticated but socially unconcerned photography of contemporaries like Edward Weston). Arguably there were already photographers either informed by both disciplines or practically fusing them, but what made Stieglitz significant perhaps was he recognised this fusion, he articulated it, and it became a consciously repeated method of constructing photographs.

So, starting to draw together some of these divergent strands of definition, we have often physical objects (although in a digital age this is increasingly less so), with some form of evidential value, which in some sense ‘teaches’ those who view it. We have an aesthetically sophisticated practice, informed by other visual traditions (including photography itself) but crucially focused on real world issues. Most importantly perhaps we have a practice which is aware of itself, of the heterogeneous influences and motives that feed into what it is, and which on some level perhaps reflects this awareness. Others may of course disagree, indeed perhaps the value of the phrase is in its various definitions and ill-defined meaning, but this, for me at least, is what I mean when I talk about a documentary photograph.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


Writing on photography