Writing on photography

What is Documentary Photography II

Words are exacting things, and however similar a synonym might sound, one phrase swapped for another will never mean precisely the same thing. This fact matters for a writer in much the same way that it matters for a photographer to know what a difference it will make shooting a subject close up with a wide lens rather than from a distance with a telephoto. Superficially, the content and meaning might seem the same, but the implication of the image can be dramatically transformed by such a change. Definitions matter then, which makes it problematic for me when something is widely used but also unclearly defined. An example of that which I find myself confronted by on a regular basis, is the vague definition of documentary photography, the practice that has come in various ways to take up an inordinate part of my time. In particular, as I have come to teach the subject more and more that question becomes more constant, and the answers I attempt to offer seem by comparison shakey and uncertain. I’m hardly alone in this, and searching the web for the question ‘what is documentary photography’ reveals a host of malformed and differing responses, including an old one of my own.

I have attempted to define documentary photography here before, and to say that I feel the need to clarify further is not exactly to confess that the previous answer was hopelessly flawed. Each time you try to solve a question without a binary answer that solution reflects the depth of knowledge you had at the time about that subject, and perhaps the particular needs you had of that answer. As knowledge and experience grows, and most importantly is processed through the filter of thought and reflection, the answer that was given before starts to seem increasingly two-dimensional. Therefore, to return to a previously answered question is not exactly to admit the original answer was inadequate, but that it served a particular purpose at a particular time and place. I daresay this answer will also seem in time to be equally insubstantial, and I think that is just something that has to be accepted as part of the process of writing or thinking about anything.

Previously when I discussed the definition of documentary photography I took a very literal approach to the question, exploring the etymological root of the word documentary, with its connotations of learning and evidence, (however problematic such a literal definition might be in light of what we know about photography’s often-questionable role as witness and evidence). This definition I attempted to align these with a certain type of practice related to photojournalism and occasionally overlapping with it, but perhaps also more visually sophisticated, experimental and less canonical. This first attempt at definition is still a useful one for me, but it could do with some further augmentation. One issue I didn’t really discuss before is the self-initiated and personal nature of much documentary work, and I think that while this is by no means a universal or a prerequisite to regarding work as ‘documentary’ in nature, it is a fairly consistent attribute especially in the 21st century. This idea snuck in accidentally last time when I drew attention to Alfred Stieglitz’s photograph The Steerage as a prototypical documentary photography, an image which (as far as we know) was very much made in response to something Stieglitz saw and felt rather than in response to a commission or response. In the long run this poses the big question of exactly what audience documentary photography is for. My previous attempt at definition, and others which are available online, suggest that the audience is often partly an abstract and unknowable future, that documentary photography is in part a practice of archive and record making for posterity or history, an idea I’d like to revisit in more depth another time.

Perhaps another rather more contemporary marker of documentary photography is its flexibility when it comes to dissemination and display. Photojournalism might be increasingly willing to appear in the art gallery, and art photography might make ever more forays into mass media and printed matter. However a characteristic which I think is defining for documentary photography in the 21st century is its ability and willingness to shape shift and adapt for different forms of dissemination, from newspaper and magazine to gallery wall via photobook, multimedia and dedicated website (and a great deal of other modes in between). For me what this hints more at is the idea that as far as one can talk about documentary photography as a coherent and stable practice, it is also one which readily overlaps with many other areas, most prominently photojournalism and art photography. While advocates of these two categories often seem keen to assert the integrity and separateness of what they do from other forms of photography, my experience of documentary photographers is they will readily and openly cannabilise ideas from other fields which appear useful to them (and that certainly can cause problems of it’s own). Thinking back to the discussion about professional names which I posted here a while back, I’ve noticed that documentary photography peers often hardly use the term themselves, typically describing themselves just as photographers. I’m not exactly sure whether that speaks to a readiness of documentary photographers to borrow from other fields and not to pin themselves down by definitions, or whether it just reveals the falsity of bothering to even talk about ‘documentary photography’ but there it is. Perhaps in spite of it’s roots in a very specific period of artistic and photographic modernism, a period which still exerts a very strong hold over photojournalism, documentary photography is now increasingly defined by the post-modernity of much of it’s practice, even if perhaps beneath that, it’s core beliefs remain rooted in much the same age.

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.

1 comment

  • It occurs to me that “documentary” is as much in the viewer as it is in the picture, or the photographer. If I choose to take the picture at face value and simply examine the objects within the frame to learn what I can of what was there, then the picture is acting as a documentary photo. If I look at the aesthetics, the balance of forms, if I attempt to divine the photographer’s politics, then the picture ceases to act as a documentary picture.

    Now, this doesn’t mean anything can be “documentary”, there must be objects in the frame, and the photographer must have made the choice to present them as they were. Obviously you can make the argument that the photographer’s politics, ideas, aesthetics, and so on will inevitably color the picture, and you can say with a modicum of truth that there’s no way to really just “photograph things as they are” objectively.

    But I think that’s hair-splitting, and kind of facetious. In reality, a photographer with any sense at all can do a fair job of photographing What Is There sufficiently well that we can usefully look at is as a documentary photograph. The process is imperfect, sure, but with a little effort on all sides, a useful result obtains.

Writing on photography