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Curious Frame - Issue #12 - What is Documentary Photography?

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #12 - What is Documentary Photography?
By Leanne Staples • Issue #12 • View online
I’ve been shooting street photography longer than I’m able to remember. I don’t say that to brag. Rather, I was taking photos that were considered street photography without knowledge of the genre.

I did not study photography in a formal manner. I was not familiar with many of the great photographers who were later given the title street photographer.

Without the internet and the ability to discover different forms of photography, I just kept snapping away at everything and anything. When first starting out in photography it’s like learning a new language and learning to control the camera. To make the tool work for you.

At one point after exhausting the typical stuff, I decided that I’d like to become an architectural photographer. You know those very cool photos that you see in Architectural Digest? Well, kind of like that but I’ve always liked the character of urban buildings. The older ones. They have more style and individuality for me.

So I started taking lots of photos of doors, windows and eventually entire buildings. The problem was that people kept walking into my photos. One day I lost my patience, as I am known to do, and I continued to take photos of buildings with people passing through them.

I call this my happy accident. When someone saw some of my photos he said cool street photography. My response was, what’s street photography? Hence, I don’t know the exact first street photos, time or place when it all began. Perhaps that isn’t really important.

Metadata doesn’t exist for film photos and I never really kept track of it and even now I need to go through more than 40 years of negatives and slides. It will take quite a few rainy days to conquer that!

At any rate, I thought perhaps it would be a good thing to provide some of the backstory before diving into this issue on documentary photography.

Reader's comments:
Curious Frame is here for you. My goal is to encourage dialogue around thoughts on photography and what it all means. I don’t have all the answers. Actually, I probably have more questions and curiosity to explore them than real answers.

All you need to do to join the dialogue is hit reply. You can even reply about earlier issues as well. Comments below are about Issue 11 - On Color

One reader wrote:
I thought i would reply to add some to your insightful newsletter.
You pointed out how fifty years ago, colour photographs were not generally accepted by museums, being seen as something for the amateur or the family polaroid.
Today; however, colour photography has taken the lead, and is almost mandatory for photojournalism as well as many artists working in photography. Watching a jury select winners at a photojournalism conference in 2020, I was struck how every entry was in colour except one (which was not chosen).
World Press Photo has recently considered disallowing black-and-white images. As a photographer I met who was covering the summer’s protests put it, she “shot in color because it feels more real.” Times have definitely changed…..
Another reader wrote:
Really well written and concise! Why are you not lecturing in art schools?
A third reader wrote:
I also wanted to thank you for Curious Frame. I’ve been reading it and enjoying it, and best of all learning from it. 
And more!
Great writeup! One of my favorite writings on using color well (and poorly) is hidden in John Szarkowski’s introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide. Check it out if you haven’t read it already.
And a deeper dive into the issue of color:
I too, have been thinking about color recently. Back in analog days, influenced by the legendary street photographers of the past, I was somewhat of a black and white snob, firmly convinced that color only commercialized, degraded, and detracted from the soul of a scene.
I trained my eye to seek and see only in monochrome. I thought the only valid reason to make a color image was if color itself was the one and only protagonist of the story. Another reason to shoot exclusively in black and white was to have complete processing and printing control (my darkroom was of course not equipped for color).
Then along came digital. When I switched to digital, I began to see things in a new light. I soon realized what had always been obvious: yes, color can be the main attraction, but color can also be an important secondary character that is nonetheless vital to the scene and can truly enhance a street-worthy image. Nowadays, my color-to-black-and-white-image-processing ratio is probably 3:1, and I love them equally. 
Thank you for your insights and appreciation. It’s not possible to publish all of them here. They are all appreciated.
Sharing is Cool! If you’ve been forwarded this email or are reading online, consider joining the dialogue by subscribing. If you are looking for past issues you can find them all in the archive at
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Is this street photography? documentary photography? or maybe both? - Sober, Tax-Paying, Older Lady,Occupy Wall Street, November 2011
Is this street photography? documentary photography? or maybe both? - Sober, Tax-Paying, Older Lady,Occupy Wall Street, November 2011
What is Documentary Photography?
Some questions come with many answers. Probably the best questions in life do not have simple answers. In fact very few things are black and white these days other than photographs. What is documentary photography? is one of them.

When we think of a documentary film, we tend to frame it as truth. We take for granted that it is true. Documentaries are typically presented to us as a true story. Not as an art. Some categories are fluid.

A camera is a tool. It is technology whether it is analog or digital. While there are many scientific purposes for photography this is not the topic of this newsletter.
Eadweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion (1878) is perhaps one the best examples of true documentary photography. In part because it is a series of photos of the exact same image presented as a single image. He is known as the Godfather of Motion Pictures.
Eadweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion (1878) is perhaps one the best examples of true documentary photography. In part because it is a series of photos of the exact same image presented as a single image. He is known as the Godfather of Motion Pictures.
I bring up documentary photography because I see so many photos that are tagged street photography when actually it is my belief that they are truly documentary photos and even occasionally staged, not candid.

This does not lessen the value of the photo. Merely it clarifies what it is. Since street photography has become oh so fashionable, many would like to fit in to the in crowd.

That does not make sense to me. A good photo is a good photo period. Let us leave fashion to the designers. It is their job to create fashion.

Warning - the hashtag is not the content. But of course you already know that! 
Eugéne Atget, Paris, Eclipse, 1912.
Eugéne Atget, Paris, Eclipse, 1912.
Eugéne Atget ‘referred to himself simply as a maker of documents-clear, uncluttered views of his beloved turn-of-the-century Paris.’ He was merely documenting what he saw. (Time-Life Documentary Photography, p.13)

The word document was in use before 1425 with the meaning of teaching or instruction as well as written evidence. The word documentary with the sense of a motion picture, based on actual events came into use about 1930.
Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 which is a document in the literal sense.
Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 which is a document in the literal sense.
We’ve come to think of documents as having official status and symbols of truth. Like a passport needed to prove your citizenship. Documents come in many forms. Oh, but the photo of Eleanor Roosevelt above is a documentary photo and the photo is a document of a document.

We often tend to think of documents and documentary photography in monochrome as if it is somehow more honest and that it is capable of retaining and displaying truth better than color.

Perhaps that will be the topic of another issue. Ask yourself when looking at photos if you find this to be true? Here’s a little extracurricular activity that you can do and provide your response to to it by simply hitting reply in your email.
Coney Island Mermaid Parade, New York City, 18 June 2011
Coney Island Mermaid Parade, New York City, 18 June 2011
I used to think of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade as an excellent opportunity for street photography. But after shooting it for 12 or 13 years, I have begun to change my opinion about that.

 If you grab your camera to go out and capture photos of a parade or protest or really any kind of preplanned event, that is really documentary. The purpose being to document something.

With the Mermaid Parade, everyone is all dressed up and ready for their 15 minutes of fame. They ham for the camera. They want to be seen and photographed. Is that street photography? I don’t think so. That’s just my opinion.
Coney Island Mermaid Parade, New York City, left 2015 and right 2010.
Coney Island Mermaid Parade, New York City, left 2015 and right 2010.
I have captured some candid photos during the Mermaid. But it has become rarer to be able to do that. Hence, I have begun to lose interest in photographing it. Not to mention the hundreds of photographers that are there to capture photos of scantily clad women.

But I digress. On the one hand, documentary photography is intended to provide truth. And that is the danger inherent in it. 

Nothing can be so deceiving as a photograph. Franz Kafka.

There is no singular Truth in documentary photography or cinema. It is not possible to provide an entirely objective truth through media. And yes, the same is true of street photography.
Carrie Mae Weems, The Shape of Things, Africa, 1993. She photographed images of places linked to the slave trade in a purely documentary style.
Carrie Mae Weems, The Shape of Things, Africa, 1993. She photographed images of places linked to the slave trade in a purely documentary style.
Photography is less and less a cognitive process, in the traditional sense of the term, or an affirmative one, offering answers, but rather a language for asking questions about the world. Luigi Ghirri, 1989 about Carrie Mae Weems photography.
Ghirri kind of sums up one of the fundamental questions about art. Does it cause you to ask questions? However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all documentary photography is art. Yet, I suggest that perhaps when done well, documentaries in general should create questions in the mind of the viewer.

So, does this mean that documentary photography need not provide the viewer with an objective image? I am not a scientist and my brain doesn’t really work that way. So don’t worry. When I was studying communications, a million years ago, Heisenberg’s theory of objectivity came up. 

I wish I could actually find the easy to understand quote from him. At any rate, it basically says that we can never stand outside of ourselves to be able to have a purely objective view of anything. If that was the case, our photos might all look the same. Not a desired outcome.

So the possible opposite of science is art. Documentary photography provides one possible truth. And it more likely fits into the art category as a result. Carrie Mae Weems is one example of this crossover effect.
Dorothea Lange, Crossroads Store, North Carolina, July 1939. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
Dorothea Lange, Crossroads Store, North Carolina, July 1939. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
Photographs do not translate from appearances, they quote from them. John Berger quoted in Photography and Belief, David Levi Strauss
When you look at the world of photography, many documentary photographers fit neatly into the art category. Dorothea Lange (photo shown above,) Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Jacob Riis, W Eugene Smith and many others.

They were often paid to document very specific subjects. Often by government agencies. Lange is best known for documenting the Great Depression. However, as is written on the Museum of Modern Art’s site,“Lange had little interest in classifying her photographs as art: she made them to effect social change.”

In a postmodern world, defining the meaning of a photo is, for the most part, open to the viewer. We don’t all see the same thing as our lived experiences are different. There is no gospel truth in a photo or piece of art. But perhaps there are some things that are universal and we can somehow relate to them.

And perhaps that is also part of the magic of photography. It transcends language boundaries and has the ability to be seen virtually virtually everywhere. There is more truth in nuance than fact when it comes to the world of art.
Aaron Siskind, Harlem Document, 1932-1940.
Aaron Siskind, Harlem Document, 1932-1940.
To me documentary photography means making a picture so that the viewer doesn’t think about the man who made the picture. At its esthetic core is a very old tradition in art: naturalism. And its purpose is to document all facets of social relationships. Aaron Siskind. Time-Life Documentary Photography, p. 102.
For the most part, the major documentary photographers were in fact artists. They created photos that are held in museum collections and they have an appeal both for their subject and composition. 

A good example of the combination of art and documentary photography where it intersects with street photography is the Photo League. If you’re not familiar with them, they are definitely worth exploring.
Louis Stettner, Windshield, Upstate New York, 1954.
Louis Stettner, Windshield, Upstate New York, 1954.
Aaron Siskind and Louis Stettner are just two of the incredible photographers in the Photo League who saw themselves as documentary photographers. Much of their work is now classified as street photography. It is interesting to take a tour of photography through the 20th century and see the progression of subjects and styles.

 Documentary photography always contains a point of view. Always. Photographers always choose their subject whether consciously or not. And composition and framing are always a choice. 

Looking at early photography, it is clear that it was mostly made by white men. Hence the photos available to us have an inherent bias in them. Which does not diminish their value. It just means that we should always examine an image for what it is and what it isn’t.
Democracy in Action, New York City, July 2019. Documenting those who are documenting.
Democracy in Action, New York City, July 2019. Documenting those who are documenting.
The Editors (that is how they are credited) at Time-Life wrote in the introduction to Documentary Photography, documentary photography
must convey a message that sets it apart from a landscape, a portrait, a street scene. It may record an event, but the event must have some general significance, more than the specific significance of a news photo.
For starters, this book was published in 1972. As far as I can tell, they don’t even mention street photography as a subject. But it is clear that The Photo League as well as The New York School Photographers are many of the photographers that we call street photographers.
Helen Levitt, New York City Subway, 1975.
Helen Levitt, New York City Subway, 1975.
It would be mistaken to suppose that any of the best photography is come at by intellection; it is like all art, essentially the result of an intuitive process, drawing on all that the artist is rather than on anything he thinks, far less theorizes about. Helen Levitt

By the 1970s, there were many photographers documenting the streets and taking photos that we have categorized as street photography. While it is difficult to find any actual information about these photographers calling their work street photography, Levitt did describe herself as an artist.

I will leave the discussion of what is documentary photography here and I will pick up on what is street photography? in an upcoming issue of the newsletter.

That said, all photos are documents, are documentary of sorts and maybe I should not get worked up about the people who hashtag their work incorrectly. However, it is becoming increasing difficult to separate truth from fiction and sometimes truth is crazier than fiction. Even Hollywood might have difficulty topping current real events.
2010 Coney Island Mermaid Parade
2010 Coney Island Mermaid Parade
I don’t believe in having rigid borders around genres. There should always be some breathing room. And maybe the biggest problem begins with social media and hashtags. I would just like to set the record straight by saying that the photograph comes before its category. Maybe it fits in one or more categories and maybe not. What do you think?
Photography Is - Part Six
W 42nd St, New York City, December 2019
W 42nd St, New York City, December 2019
If photography looks easy, it’s because you are witnessing art.
It is only easy in the sense that you also find it easy to do things that you always do. That does not take away from its value.
Of course you rarely see the failures of any great artist.
We are shown what is deemed to be worthy.
Reading list:
  • Korn, Jerry, Editor. Life Library of Photography: Documentary Photography, Time-Life Books, 1972.
  • Levi Strauss, David. Photography and Belief, David Zwirner Books, 2020.
Further Viewing:
W. Eugene Smith made a documentary film which is in part a story of him as a photographer as well as the jazz musicians that jammed in the loft above him.
When I saw it it was free to watch. Perhaps you can find it that way as well. It is a fabulous documentary and you don’t need to be a fan of jazz music to appreciate it. It is a feature length video.
The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith
A number of years ago, I saw a fabulous exhibit of photos taken by the Photo League. Here is a short video on that exhibit which was titled The Radical Camera.
The Radical Camera: New York's Photo League, 1936-1951
There is also a website about The Photo League and it seems that there was a film titled Ordinary Miracles about them. There’s a lot of information on it but it seems that the site hasn’t been updated in awhile and maybe it’s no longer possible to see the film.

Ordinary Miracles: The Photo League's New York | The Photo League Film
You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
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That Other Space Shop – Art, Etcetera
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Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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