“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.