Writing on photography

When Documentary Becomes Art I

This is part I of a write up of an introductory talk I gave earlier in the summer on the relationship between art and documentary photography, how the two sometimes blur together and what the consequences are when this happens.

(Part II)

A little earlier in the summer I chaired a discussion on the relationship between art and documentary photography, how the two sometimes blur together and what the consequences are when this happens. As part of the talk I prepared a short introduction to the topic broadly covering how art and documentary uses of photography have evolved alongside each other since the invention of the media. I’ve written these notes up for anyone interested in the topic who maybe didn’t make it to the talk or wanted a bit more detail:

This discussion of photography’s split personality, it’s much vaunted ability to be both subjective art and objective science, goes back to it’s birth, and even earlier. The camera obscura, an ancient device that formed the basis of early photographic cameras, was itself both a tool of renaissance artists including Canaletto and Reynolds, and also of early theorists on the nature of light, scientists in others words. The Greek philosopher Euclid made observations based on one, as did the Islamic scholar Ibn al-Haytham.

Centuries later as the first photographic processes were being patented there was much debate about exactly what it is that has been invented. This is evident in the names that inventors applied to this new technology. Talbot for example named his first monograph The Pencil of Nature which rather incongruously implied that his invention was both an art and a natural science. Similarly the final popular term, photography, is as Geoffrey Batchen has observed, a portmanteau of words with fundamentally incompatible meanings. Photo, implying light, nature, god, and Graphie, suggesting writing, culture, art, man.

Photographic practice reflected a similarly split understanding of what this new technology was for. Photographers like Julia Margaret Cameron were clearly heavily influenced by fine art, employing techniques like soft focus that were intended to emulate a painterly aesthetic. As well as borrowing from fine art, photographers like Cameron were amongst the first to make the argument for photography as an art form in itself, against much opposition from the fine arts establishment who doubtless feared the erosion of their role as image makers.

On the other hand a growing number of scientists were deploying photography as a means of studying, documenting and categorising subjects. An early example of this was Guillaume Duchenne who used photography to document what happened when he applied electrical currents to the faces of his patients. A later, better-known example is Edweard Meuybridge with his photographic motion studies of people and animals in motion. At the same time there were some blurring the two, proto-documentarians like Eugène Atget who used photography to document a clearly defined subject, but in a aesthetically sophisticated way that was not simply functional or scientific.

The start of the twentieth century saw far more evidence of people mixing and moving between these two quite different fields. In America a good example is Alfred Stieglitz, who was on the one hand a painter, indeed a modern artist but on the other hand was producing photographs we would instantly recognise as social documentary. For example his 1907 photography The Steerage, showing the lower class passengers of a boat traveling from New York to Bremen, a photograph which Stieglitz himself modestly proclaimed was a ‘milestone in photography’ and which indeed is now considered one of the most important early documentary photographs.

Stieglitz and his ilk (Paul Strand, Lewis Hine) combined the potential of photography to create an accurate record of the state of society with a sophisticated visual aesthetic, something which I think has really come to define our notion of ‘documentary photography’, a practice which is often aesthetically more nuanced than straight photojournalism, but more outward looking and socially engaged than much fine art photography.

There were similar trends evident in Europe, one example is Karl Blossfeldt, who again was a fine artist, but who was producing incredibly beautiful photographs of plants at least in part so he could advance his thesis that there exists a relationship between human architecture and the natural world, a project which seems on the face of it, documentary. It was only towards the end of his life that Blossfeldt was really ‘discovered’ and anyone else saw the art value of his photographs. Similar things could be said of another German, August Sander and his epic attempt to catalogue the different social and economic groups of Weimar Germany, a project which similarly mixed a beautiful aesthetic with the desire to create a relatively objective photographic document.

Moving further east the blurring becomes even more pronounced. Some of the most significant pre-war Soviet photographers (Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy, Lissitzky for example) were also artists, who mixed the two disciplines, combining reportage type photography with techniques like collage and abstraction to create a radically different visual language. Equally with their loyalties split between documenting the new Soviet Union, and eulogising it in propoganda photographs, the work of these artist-photographers started to generate difficult questions about the split loyalties of all documentary photographs.

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.

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Writing on photography