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  1. #1
    Daniel_OB's Avatar
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    Documentary photography

    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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    Last edited by Daniel_OB; 01-16-2007 at 03:27 PM. Click to view previous post history.

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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. #3

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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. #4
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    Quote Originally Posted by Daniel_OB View Post
    I define documentary photography as: portrait of the time when it is made.
    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. #5
    Daniel_OB's Avatar
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    jstraw
    "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. #6

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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. #7
    Michel Hardy-Vallée's Avatar
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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.
    Last edited by Michel Hardy-Vallée; 01-16-2007 at 05:08 PM. Click to view previous post history.
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  8. #8
    Maris's Avatar
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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.
    Photography, the word itself, invented and defined by its author Sir John.F.W.Herschel, 14 March 1839 at the Royal Society, Somerset House, London. Quote "...Photography or the application of the Chemical rays of light to the purpose of pictorial representation,..". unquote.

  9. #9
    jstraw's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Daniel_OB View Post
    jstraw
    "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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    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. #10
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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.

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