The rise of Documentary photography

Young Oklahoma Mother  March 1937 by Dorothea Lange Young Oklahoma mother, age 18, penniless, stranded in Imperial Valley, Ca. March, 1937. Image courtesy of New deal Public network

Young Oklahoma Mother March 1937 by Dorothea Lange
Young Oklahoma mother, age 18, penniless, stranded in Imperial Valley, Ca. March, 1937.
Image courtesy of New deal Public network

“We have all had a surfeit of “pretty” pictures, of romantic views of hilltop, seaside, rolling fields, skyscrapers seen askew, picturesque bits of life torn out of their sordid context. It is life that is exciting and important, and life whole and unretouched.”


Elizabeth McCausland wrote this in an article she provided for “Photo Notes” which was published in January 1939 where she described the “The rise of documentary photography…”. The timing of the article, coming as it does around the start of the second world war and close to the end of modernism I think has a telling effect on the underlying premise of the work. And I take from the title of the piece “Documentary Photography” that she is making the distinction between as photograph as a ‘document’ and a photography as a documentary work with it’s own narrative and contextual references.


MacCausland very nearly dismisses all photography prior to the development of ‘Documentary” – the pictorialists whose ‘sterility’ of image was only survived by a few ‘fine workers’ the likes of Strand, Sheeler and Weston and only then when they “turn(ed) to newer and more objective purposes.” Similarly those who experimented with surrealism , like Moholy-Nagy, Beaton and Man Ray are similarly dismissed as passing fancies. It was the work of the FSA photographers and also Bearnice Abbott – who seems to come in for some special praise – that hold the beacon at the vanguard of photography’s capability to provide light in a Riisian tenement slum night’s gloom. Though where Riis is in the canon that MacCausland depicts is unsure as mentioned he is not.

MacCausland understands the photographers editing capability, framing the view to present the “rationalized wrinkles of an ageing face and obligingly overlooking peeling paint and rotting wood”. However the FSA’s depiction of  “an old woman’s knotted and gnarled hands is a human and social document of great moment and moving quality. The erosion of these deformed fingers is to be seen the symbol of social distortion and deformation: waste is to be read here, as it is read in lands washed down to the sea by floods, in dust storms and drouth (sic) bowls.” There seems to be no suggestion that whilst she accepts the camera can lie, it can only do that in the situation where profit or vanity or somesuch other human frailty is involved. When the motivation is to reveal by the process of ‘Documentary” the travails of society then the camera is king. And more so: “The fact is a thousand times more important than the photographer; his personality can be intruded only by the worst taste of exhibitionism; that is the last reality.” Suggesting that if the photographer is a documentryist then by association he (it always seems to be a male) will necessarily be telling the truth, portraying the truth. “Yet, also, by the imagination and intelligence he possesses and uses, the photographer controls the new esthetic (sic), finds the significant truth and gives it significant form.”

The author goes on to talk about how photography becomes confused with itself, by pandering to its own insecurities starts to portray photography as an elemental part of the “Art world”.  Whereupon she decries that today “progressive photographers are not especially interested in that point; it seems an empty issue.” I would tend to agree with that point, but then she goes on to say “(if after all the talk, we agree that photography is an art)”!

It might be easy to reflect with 20/20 hindsight and suggest that her views were, to some extent, naïve; but I don’t think so. I think that documentary photographers ‘in the day’ were no different to those operating in the medium today. Mostly grizzled veterans who have a nagging respect to uphold the integrity of vision, for ignoring it could open their output to ridicule and reduce their value to the practice of the documentary to that of a Cypriot bankers deposit. I think that her parlance might appear dated and somewhat romantic, but her overall view is one that I would hope to still be correct. That is that photographers who want to provide a voice to a situation will do so in a way that enables ‘a’ truth to be seen and to have the chance to enter into a debate by a wider audience than perhaps otherwise would have done so. Whether the work changes anything is quite another matter, so few documentaries do change things, but if it doesn’t enter the public consciousness then it stand no chance.




6 thoughts on “The rise of Documentary photography

  1. Interesting. There are some tensions in this discussion that I haven’t quite made sense of yet – maybe something to explore in my next module. I mean in particular the tendency of conceptual art photography towards the self-referential and indulgent in their endless exploration of the document and similar as opposed to the documentarist who may be naive in assuming that their work could be objective or truth-telling but who is at least trying to engage with the world and bear witness/make a difference. Each time I try to really delve into these subjects and make sense of it to myself my head always ends up in a spin – both approaches have pros and cons in my mind, and au fond I am not sure that they are really as different as they may seem.

    I think it is important, if one wants to explore the world as objectively as possible, to be aware of one’s own prejudices. It is wrong to pretend (as McCausland seems to do in these extracts) that they can ever not be there or that pure objectivity is possible in a classic documentary context.

    • I agree that whomever is recording the document is laden with cultural, gender, ideological, emotional and a myriad more influences (reading Semiotics again!) and that these can never be successfully removed because the artist isn’t fully aware of all the pulls on their consciousness. What they can do however is to be as true to their perception of truth as possible. I think, perhaps as you do that MacCausland was an idealist in thinking that this new(ish) genre was going to provide veracity by merely recording the mechanical verisimilitude when the shutter was enabled – that it would, despite being fully aware that the framing provided an edit to the scene. Ah, but then we are so much older now, perhaps MacCausland was that much younger then.

  2. Haha – yes, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Each generation learns from previous ones and understanding of photography has moved on somewhat in 70-odd years. I see she assumes that financial reports in newspapers are statements of factual truth – a statement unlikely to be made in our post-post-modern world. What is interesting is that, points of detail aside, we are still having essentially the same debate that preoccupied McCausland, Seeking new answers to old questions perhaps.

    I did find her comparision of social documentary photography to Dickens, Hugo et al quite interesting. Reflecting on Catherine’s recent post about Robert Frank, perhaps the success of The Americans was in part in bringing photography more in tune with the then current literary and wider artistic zeitgeist, rather than harking back to the ethos of the previous century?

    • Yes, I noticed the financial thing as well, coming so quickly after the Wall Street crash as well! Time is a great healer.
      I wonder if truth is more of a concern for students, as we wrestle with vernacular and begin to trust our voices – I know it is a constant bane of my work i.e. do I believe in it enough?!?
      I think I may differ with you on The Americans; in that I think it sent a jolt through the zeitgeist rather than chimed with it. Here was an ‘outsider’ bringing the sense of the effect of consumerist isolation into sharp focus, whereas before the commentary was much about the disadvantaged, the work of the FSA &c, and of course Evans, who was Frank’s mentor for the Guggenheim. The work then triggered/released a raft of new photographers, Winogrand, Freidlander, Shore and the ‘new topographics’ et al. Interesting to think about though, I agree.

  3. I can’t find anything anywhere that mentions her actually taking photographs. She certainly appears to be contradicting herself somewhat, i.e. documentary photographers tell the truth yet, at the same time, use other images as metaphors – e.g. the old, knotted hands. Even rich old people have those! I have to make allowances though because such writers always seemed to be more emphatic/didactic in the past.

  4. The comments she makes in 1939 were perhaps not so strident with the benefit of hindsight – after all she hadn’t seen ‘The Americans’ yet! I wonder if I can find any of her thoughts about that tome…..

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