Documentary photography

Discussion in 'Ethics and Philosophy' started by Daniel_OB, Jan 16, 2007.

  1. Daniel_OB

    Daniel_OB Member

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    Portrait photography reveals the most characteristic “features” of a person (portrait of people), building, group of people, car, … Also all of that photographs shows how the subject looks like in the specific time and place. We use that photographs to produce mental image about the subject, so they are actually document about the same subject.
    On another side there is documentary photography as separate category. I define documentary photography as: portrait of the time when it is made. I have constantly a problem to distinguish documentary photography from any other category, say: scientific photography, portrait of my wife, street photography,… Looks like that just any photograph fall into category documentary, so all photographs are actually documents.

    So how we can make precise definition for documentary photography that will make it as a unique category?

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  2. Drew B.

    Drew B. Subscriber

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    I think it has been used in the past to highlight conditions in some neighborhood, city or area where bad conditions are not well known and which need the attention of the general public or politicians to bring about change. So, a documentary photo shows something that needs change.???
     
  3. Pinholemaster

    Pinholemaster Member

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    Didn't know we needed a more precise definition?

    Addressing Drew's point, if you document something that is in a positive nature, we don't need to change it, just appreciate it.

    Anyway, I can't define documentary photography more precisely for you, but I do know it when I see it.
     
  4. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    I would only agree, if your definition of portraiture prohibits manipulation of the subject or its surroundings...because photography is not documentary photography if the subject matter has been "styled."
     
  5. Daniel_OB

    Daniel_OB Member

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    "styling" should not be subject for photographers at all. It belongs to painting, drawing, woodcut, etching, sculture,... not to photography as I see it. That word "manipulations" become something that make me sometimes a little nervous. Manipulations is not something complimentary to anyone, but photographers use it as "basic manupul.." then "advanced manip.."...
    Well, manipulation is not something we should insert around the definition.

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  6. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Estimado Daniel,

    To quote a picture library of my acquaintance,

    "Show us something we've never seen before, or show us something we all know, as if we have never seen it before."

    Cheers,

    R.
     
  7. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    We can start the debate by taking positions on whether ALL photography is documentary to a certain extent (as this was one position used to justify arguments excluding the possibility of photography to be art).

    My position is no, not all photography is documentary, because you can create a fiction out of a photo. Most of the time it represents what was in the optical path of the lens (unless we're talking about collages, where separate spaces are combined into one). Therefore, what makes a photo documentary is in the practices of production and interpretation, not in the object itself, thus enabling some documentary photos to function as works of art and vice versa.

    To get to the specificity of "documentary" I think you have to look first at the kind of statement one is making with a photo. The documentary statement is one of factuality, resemblance, potential reproductibility (if you go to the place that was photographed, you could see a thing similar to what was photographed, though this is not true of all documentary photos), trust, information-richness, etc.

    An audience would react to a documentary photography by looking for factual information, pictorial elements that would enable one to say with confidence "it is the case that..." about what is represented.

    A documentary photo also allows one to perform actions on the basis of what is represented: a good satellite photo functions very well as a map, and help you getting oriented; a reportage about a drought in Ethiopia is sufficiently reliable for policy makers to move their asses without fear of being misled. The information in it is verifiable by means external to the photographic process.

    A lot of photos are accidentally documentary, for example the early dagguerreotype picture of a Paris boulevard recorded someone having their shoes polished on the sidewalk, having stood still long enough to be recorded. But a good documentary photo is one that is designed with such a purpose in mind, and in which the photographer takes extra care to consolidate his factual affirmations, thus making it more reliable than a snapshot capturing accidentally what seems to be a murder in the background.

    We make a lot of photo's ability to be documentary, and often consider this documentary ability to be unique to photography, but consider for a moment the possibility of documentary painting or drawing. Given a sufficiently strict and reliable practice, one could interchangeably accept as document a photo or a painting.
     
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  8. Maris

    Maris Member

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    All photographs are documentary in the sense that they are generated by the penetration of a physical sample of subject matter into the light sensitive emulsion surface at the moment of exposure. Given this, photographs of themselves cannot and do not lie.

    The big crunch comes when subject matter is itself deceptive. A floating log becomes the Loch Ness monster; planet Venus, out of focus, becomes a UFO. The camera (or the enlarger for that matter) cannot be wrong about what it sees but we can!

    On top of human fallibility about what we are looking at there is the propensity to see stuff that isn't there. Pareidolia is seeing animal shapes in clouds, sex in Rorschact blots, or the face of Jesus in a burnt taco.

    The technical veracity of photography suggests documentary truth but the human factor says no, not quite.
     
  9. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    Oy. Now I gotta disagree on the other side of the equation. Plenty of photographic genres have a ligitimate use of styling....food photography...still life...portraiture...figure study...archetectural photography...all manner of commercial photography...

    I could go on and on.
     
  10. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    I think some confusion arises because of the (surprise!) ambiguity of the English language.

    To me, documentary photography is "commentary photography" in the sense that it identifies a particular newsworthy subject matter and provides, via pictoral evidence, a comment on the conditions being reported.

    In the past, publications like LIFE magazine were primary conduits for documentary photo essays. They also would carry biographies, fashion etc. so that the contrast was relatively evident.

    In motion pictures, pre-TV the cinema offered "News of the World" type reportage that were considered documentaries in moving image format.

    Television adopted this form in the 1950's and 1960's with "documentary specials" that usually highlighted social ills (e.g. Murrow's famous "Harvest of Shame" - which focused on the plight of migrant farmworkers around 1960).

    While one could produce a "happy" documentary series of photos (for example, a Presidential inauguration) - I think the genre is generally associated with "exposing ills" - be they social wrongs, the horror of war, disasters (e.g. the Tsunami), or famines etc.
     
  11. firecracker

    firecracker Member

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    Documentary of "undocumented" moments? :confused:

    I have a feeling that this argument goes into an endless philosophical discussion in vain, and we'll never get out of it.

    But what I understand the word "documentary" is more like referring to the news picture whether it's cinema or still. It's basically a talking-head style of telling stories.
     
  12. bjorke

    bjorke Member

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    Why is this important? I'm not convinced that such distinctions are needed.
     
  13. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Depending on the president, the inauguration might be a disaster, too...

    (Sorry, couldn't resist).

    Otherwise I agree completely.

    Cheers,

    R.
     
  14. Daniel_OB

    Daniel_OB Member

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    "Oy. Now I gotta disagree on the other side of the equation. Plenty of photographic genres have a ligitimate use of styling....food photography...still life...portraiture...figure study...archetectural photography...all manner of commercial photography..."

    I think I got what you mean with "styling" (=arranging before the shot). And all of that above is true you said. One can add and add and remove... But when once he shoot it it was there. It was true moment and arangament. Camera and photog documented what was there. Now how I can say it is not a document of what was there. Use of a photograph is a different story.

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  15. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    Clarifying vocabulary would be one useful reason, discriminating between objects of study would be another. Personnally I think these questions open up to larger debates, in this case the question of truth in photography. Sometimes at the end of the debate you chuck the original question because of the typical philosopher's attitude "that's not a very good question."

    Not that I think definitions always need to be sharp-edged, and I don't agree with the OP's desire to find a tight-sealed category for documentary photography. One is more likely to find a few basic principles, an overarching logic, uncover some fundamental insights on truth and photo, apprehend a dazzling display of variability between works, and find that documentary aspects are spread out wider than only within a single category of photos.

    But everybody hates categories because they are soooo evil and restrictive ("How dare you label me!") so none of the distinctions and caveat regarding them that I'm raising will even be considered in this thread.
     
  16. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    Documentary photography, strickly speaking, prohibits adding or removing elements or otherwise staging photographs. Documentary photography is tradtionally, in no way predisposed towards exposing ills..though that sort of work is often more dramatic or memorable. National Geographic is almost entirely documentary photography and it skews hard towards the positive.
     
  17. Daniel_OB

    Daniel_OB Member

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    Maris I just have to thanks for your brilliant post. It is not first time I see so useful and educational comments from you.
    Holding that all photographs are documentary, now I think that -documentary photography- has to be defined as an imaginary category, category that actually exist only with a purpose to classify work into some specific field.

    Documentary photography is a portrait of the time when it is made, and it depicts unnecessary social issue.

    Now I know what I am doing. Studio family portrait is not a (imaginary) documentary photograph for it does not depict unnecessary social issue.

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  18. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    Nonsense. Documentary photography is simply telling a story visually, without employing fiction.
     
  19. copake_ham

    copake_ham Inactive

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    This is a very good observation. The idea of "documenting" is, strictly speaking, "reportage of reality". It should be valid "within its four corners" as would be the case with a legal document.

    And I concur that National Geographic has been an example of "positive" positive documentary photography - particularly through its mid-20th Century editions. More contemporarily, I do believe that it too has used the documentary form to highlight "ills" - particularly as regards environmental degradation and the negative consequences of globalization on native cultures.
     
  20. jnanian

    jnanian Advertiser Advertiser

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    photography is documentary, it is the nature of a camera to record. if the operator of the camera alters the fstop shutter speed, double exposes, filters, prints with a heavyhand, tones, bleaches, collages, solarizes et C. ... s/he has just distorted reality, but it is still some sort of reality that was distorted to begin with. the camera just stops time, the operator/printer/viewer interprets what the camera grabs.
     
  21. Dorothy Blum Cooper

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    Bingo!!!!
     
  22. Daniel_OB

    Daniel_OB Member

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    Many documentary photographs has been changed in darkroom. One example is "migrant mother" by D. Lange.
    Any photograph can be changed, documentary too and still is documentary. However doing so photographer push his work to slip out of photography medium, to make his work clasified as some fu**** manipulation, or illustration, if he is not skilled enough to know where is the limit. So many photographers are simple within the medium because of technicallyty of the equipment and predatorism and even do not think about any limits of photography as a medium, and just not making difference of darkroom "work" degree. Thinking about photographers, guys that are not within the medium because of F6 Nikon or Leica R8, in most cases darkroom "work" is not a problem for they know what they do, so is photograph changed or not should not be a part of the definition. Even and lanscape changed by hands or computer by unskilled photog is no more photography.

    There also some other pifalls about documentary photography.
    it is a spirit of photog's approach which determines the value of his afford, it his technical ability to express what he want to say. There is no room for exhibitionism or oportunusm or excersize of the equipment in documentary photography. Placing his personality over his subject photog will only damage the serious aims of documentary photography.

    And Nat. Geo. photography is not in most cases documentary but rather Nature, or travel photography (Look and think about the name, again N. GEOGRAPHY). Example of documentary photography are D. Lange, Evans. Abbot, W.E. Smith (project Minamata came in the head),...

    I still think that my defonition is fine.

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