Lecture 6

In Lecture 6 we looked at early Social Documentary photography and the rise of street photography.

Victorian documentary photography began almost with the invention of the daguerreotype. In the early days the whole aim of documentary photography was a philanthropic one, and it relied on the truthfulness and authenticity of both the camera and the photographer.

One early documentary photographer was John Thomson who photographed the poor in order to bring it to the forefront of the public’s mind. His photographs went hand in hand with the writings of Adolphe Smith who helped to add context to the images Thomson had produced.

Jacob Riis was another photographer who was at the forefront of early documentary photography. Based in America, who documented the cities where people flooded to in search of work, He showed them in their living quarters, and the sacrifices they had made in order to make a better life for themselves.


There was a very clear social goal to the early work in documentary photography. Lewis Hines is possibly the best known of them all for his work showcasing child labour. He worked with the national labour committee in an attempt change the laws. His work was not about aesthetics, but it got straight to the point becoming political in nature, this paved the way for social documentary photography in terms of its ability to change things.

We also looked at the work of the FSA who used photographers such as Evans and Lange. The aim was to show life of the impoverished and the difficulties they face in the depression to get them new homes. Perhaps the most famous photograph taken was Migrant Mother by Lange.


Things started to change though when Arthur Rothstein recreated a dust storm picture. Although applauded it started to beg the question of does what happens in front of the camera at the time have to represent what happens in the final photograph? In one image Rothstein moved a skull to create the image. In funny turn of events the FSA threatened to remove funding as he was falsely showing the scene. It is interesting that it was ok for Rothstein to recreate an event entirely, but not to enhance the scene. He crossed the line of Art and photography at the time, with photography very much still being about authenticity.

Walker Evans also moved onto start documenting the world. His work was aesthetic, he wasn’t documenting for politics, but merely to show the world changing.

In Britain there began a mass observation, not just in photography, but a record of everything.

The observation looked at the working town of and the leisure town of Blackpool. The photographs were taken by Oxford grad Humphrey Spenser who was of a much higher class than the people he was documenting, finding it very difficult to fit in.

Street photography then started to come about with the likes of Robert Frank and William Klien. Frank documented American life, it had no meaning but he shot it as it was, much like Klien who took the view that anything and everything could be photographed. Other street photographers Gary Winograd and Diane Arbus were similar. Social documentary photography had become no longer about the good but the aesthetic. Martha Rosler took issue with this as to her that wasn’t the point of it. She felt it had to be categorised and there had to be a purpose for the image and a purpose for what it was trying to show.


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