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Documentary Approach to Photography

Author(s): Beaumont Newhall


Source: Parnassus, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Mar., 1938), pp. 2-6
Published by: College Art Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/771747
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H. Le Secq: Porch of Chartres Cathedral, 1852. From an original paper negative


in the collection of Victor Barthelemy
Paris.
Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.

TWO

DOCUMENTARY APPROACH TO PHOTOGRAPHY


by BEAUMONT NEWHALL

JOURNALISM has discovered that the camera is one Yet in producing them he himself created works of art,
of its most powerful tools. A picture can often tell of a far more genuine characterthan such an elaborately
more than thousands of words, and a picture made by self-conscious photograph as Rejlander's Two Paths of
photography implies by its method of production a basis Life, reproduced in Parnassus in October, 1934, which
of fact. All know that such an implication is untrue, was practically contemporary. Through the program of
but everyone accepts the photograph as the pictorial evi- documenting medieval architecture and sculpture, Le
dence of an eye-witness-the cameraman.
Secq achieved an artistic result. This, I believe, is the
chief esthetic function of documentary photography,
There is, of course, nothing new in the appreciation and possibly even a basis for the most genuinely creaof the photograph as a document. At its very birth in tive aspect of photography.
1839 photography's importance in providing, with a
minimum of effort, accurate visual records was advanced The use of the word "documentary" in connection
as one of its chief values. On this one point all were with photography is comparatively new. Paul
Gruyer
agreed, while the place of the photograph as a work of in his Victor Hugo Photographe (Paris, Mendel, 1905)
art was immediately questioned. But even those who calls the camera record of Hugo's exile in Jersey which
have denied most vehemently that photography is an art he reproduces"le premier document
photographique que
do not hesitate to study the history of more accepted nous possedons sur une epoque" In the N. Y. Sun for
forms of art by means of photographicdocuments. Henri February 8, 1926, John Grierson spoke of
Flaherty's
Delaborde, in a review of a photographic exhibition in film Moana as documentary. It has since been gener1856 had no good to say for the photographs produced ally accepted among movie makers as defining a
particuin the name of Art, but he was enthusiastic over the lar type of film which is based upon natural factual maphotographic documents of Chartres cathedral produced terial (as opposed to artificial studio sets) presented in
an imaginative and dramatic form. The greatest and
by Le Secq.
most organized activity has been in Great Britain, under
I mention this particular criticism, because it is a qual- the leadership of John Grierson and Paul Rotha. The
itative one. Delaborde singled out the work of one man. latter's Documentary Film, published by Faber & Faber
We agree in his choice; Le Secq's series has seldom in 1936 is a brilliant statement of the history and aims
been surpassed by all the hundreds of cameramen who of the movement. The definition of documentary which
have visited Chartres since 1852. Yet they were not Rotha offers differs markedly from the dictionary meanunique. They were not unique in factual content. Their ing; it includes qualitative and technical implications-a
technique-that of the calotype-did not permit a high dramaticpresentation of fact. It is thus more closely alresolution of detail; what is told about the physical struc- lied to the French documentaire as developed by Zola.
ture of Chartres was not revealed for the first time, be- Like the French writer's document-novels,these films are
cause lithographed documents, by the most meticulous produced for definite sociological purposes. The doctrine
draftsmen, had appeared previously. Le Secq's photo- is conscious. There exist, of course, films quite indegraphs are a sympathetic interpretation of Chartres. pendent of the movement which, probably unconsciousThey are a direct record, not only of the carved stones, ly, follow the same theories: for example many newsbut of the photographer'semotion in viewing them. And reels and travelogues. But by no means all, for while
they represent only what actually stood in front of his they are based on fact, they are not necessarily presented
camera on the day in 1852 when he exposed his nega- either in a dramatic fashion or with regard to the sociotives.
logical significance of their material.
In making this series of photographs, Le Secq had in The same is true of still photography. I have dismind nothing more than a record of Chartres cathedral. cussed the meaning of documentary as used in film-makTHREE

etrating portraits of the men who planned and fought


and died for the Union and for the Confederacy have
more esthetic content than the compositions, lighted a
la Rembrandt, which are signed "Adam Salomon,
sculpteur," or the anecdotal composite prints of H. P.
Robinson, often called the father of pictorialism.
Filed away as records of explorations in the archives
of the U. S. Geological Survey are photographs of the
canyons that have seldom been equalled. To find the
finest rendering of the infinite perspectives of the great
plains of the Middle West, one must turn to the stereographs by Alexander Gardner documenting the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Hundreds of thousands of photographs of Paris must
have been taken in the last hundred years, but to experience esthetically the face of that great city, fairly to
breathe at will its atmosphere, we consult the work of
two photographers who would be called "documentary"
today: Charles Marville, who recorded for the state certain condemned quarters before their destruction at Napoleon III's command; and Eugene Atget, who at the
turn of the century trained his camera on every conceivable detail of his beloved city.

CIMAROON COUNTY
DUST STORM (1936)
ARTHUR ROTHSTEIN
OKLAHOMA
of the Farm Secur- More recently, the photographs of child labor condithe
courtesy
Reproduced through
tions in this country, taken shortly before the war by
ity Administration.
ing, because in this field the definition has been made
articulate, and because I believe that the present popularity of the word to describe a class of still pictures has

Mr. Lewis Hine for sociological propaganda, must be


considered portraits, poignant in their stark and direct
seizure of the emotions of both photographer and subjects.

been inspired by the example of the cinema. But there

Within the last decade a number of younger photographers, sensing the artistic strength of such photographic documents as these, have seen in this materialistic approach the basis for an esthetic of photography. To
Berenice Abbott, now engaged in a courageous and
sweeping documentation of New York City, we owe our
knowledge of Atget and his work; she acquired almost
his entire collection of negatives after his death in 1927.
Walker Evans, Ralph Steiner, Margaret Bourke-White
in the East-Ansel
Adams, Willard Van Dyke in the
with others have produced simple,
West-together
straightforward photographs of great technical excellence interpreting not only the world nearest to them,
but also its social significance. Up to a few years ago
It is undeniable that the documentary method, as op- this work has lacked organization; although widely imiposed to the abstract desire to produce Fine Art, has re- tated, no school was formed. With the formation of
sulted in significant photographic art. The work of the photographic section of the Farm Security Adminisphotographerswho have attempted to interpret subject- tration (then known as the Resettlement Administramatter has usually been superior to the work of pho- tion) in 1935 an important center was established. Roy
tographerswho have deliberatelyset out to rival or equal E. Stryker, Chief of the Historical Division of the
the painter. There are, of course, brilliant exceptions to F.S.A., conceived the idea of a photographic survey of
this observation. But let us examine other cases than agricultural America; Walker Evans was among the first
Le Secq's.
photographers commissioned to undertake this work.
Largely through his example and through the extraordiIn his catalog of Civil War photographs, Matthew B. narily fine miniature camera shots of Ben Shahn, a diBrady states that the photographs "represent 'grim-vis- rection was given to the project; a technical and an
aged war' exactly as it appeared,"and makes no further esthetic standard was raised which the other photogclaim. Yet these pictures of the wrack and ruin of raphers in the project have maintained. Never losing

is a profound difference between still and motion-picture


photography. The former is primarily a spatial art; the
latter a temporal one. The film is always seen as a unit;
the sequence of images is prescribed, and remains uniform except for wilful cutting by exhibitors for moral or
economic reasons. The still photograph, however, is
seldom seen twice in the similar manner. It may be reproduced together with any other photograph, and
with any caption. Therefore, while there is a unity of
spirit between still and cinematic documentary,their approaches to the same problem must be through separate
channels.

human bodies and nature and man's creations, these penFOUR

sight of the primary sociological purpose of their survey,

Arthur Rothstein, Russell Lee, John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange and Theodor Jung have produced
photographs which deserve the consideration of all who
appreciate art in its richest and fullest meaning. Thanks
to the growth of the documentary method, the future
of photography in the U. S. A. seems very promising.
It is importantto bear in mind that "documentary"is an
approach rather than an end. Slavish imitation of the
style of other workers is meaningless. Photography has
suffered from imitation almost more than the other arts;
various movementshave been so blindly followed that the
force of the Driginal impetus has been lost. "Pictorialism"
had a definite esthetic place so long as it was not practised
as an end; the Photo-Secessionists at the turn of the century were genuinely creative. Yet compare the plates of
Camera Work with the prize-winners in pictorial salons
today! The followers have imitated the form and the
technique, but they have omitted the spirit of the original.
Just within the last few years we have seen the growth
of the "candid" school from the truly amazing unposed
portraits of Dr. Erich Salomon in the late twenties to
the most casual snapshot by anyone whose pocketbook
can afford a miniature camera with an F/2 lens. Dr.
Salomon's pictures were correctly described by the editor of a London illustrated paper as "candid," but the
majority of similar photographs deserve no such adjective.
And so it is with "documentary." Because the majority
of best work has been concerned with the homes and lives
of the under-privileged, many pictures of the down-andout have been made as "documentaries." The decay of
man and of his buildings is picturesque; the texture of
weathered boards and broken window-panes has always
been particularly delightful to photograph. Eighty years
ago a critic in the Cosmopolitan Art Journal wrote: "If
asked to say what photography has best succeeded in rendering, we should point to everything near and rough."
These things, taken for their picturesqueness, may and
often do form photographs of great beauty. But unless
they are taken with a seriously socioligical purpose, they
are not documentary.
The documentary photographer is not a mere technician. Nor is he an artist for art's sake. His results are
often brilliant technically and highly artistic, but primarily they are pictorial reports. First and foremost he is
a visualizer. He puts into pictures what he knows about,
and what he thinks of, the subject before his camera.
Before going on an assignment he carefully studies the
situation which he is to visualize. He reads history and
related subjects. He examines existing pictorial material
for its negative and positive value-to
determine what
must be re-visualized in terms of his approach to the assignment, and what has not been visualized.
But he will not photograph dispassionately; he will
not simply illustrate his library notes. He will put into

his camera studies something of the emotion which he


feels toward the problem, for he realizes that this is the

most effective way to teach the public he is addressing.


After all, is not this the root-meaning of the word "document" (docere, "to teach")? For this reason his pictures
will have a different, and more vital, quality than those
of a mere technician. They will even be better than those
of a cameraman working under the direction of a sociologist, because he understands his medium thoroughly, and
is able to take advantage of its potentialities while respecting its limitations. Furthermore he is able to react to a
given situation with amazing spontaneity.
Edward Weston, in his admirable little booklet Photography in the "Enjoy Your Museum" series has said:
"In the application of camera principles, thought and action so nearly coincide that the conception of an idea and
its execution can be almost simultaneous. The previsioned
image, as seen through the camera, is perpetuated at the
moment of clearest understanding, of most intense emotional response." This is precisely the method of working which has produced the most penetrating photo-documents. We see this theory in practice in Margaret
Bourke-White's Tou Have Seen Their Faces in the technical section of which she describes the way she made
these excellent pictures: "Flash bulbs provide the best
means I know, under poor light conditions, of letting your
subject talk away until just that expression which you
wish to capture crosses his face. Sometimes I would set
up the camera in a corner of the room, sit some distance
away from it with a remote control in my hand, and
watch our people while Mr. Caldwell talked with them. It
might be an hour before their faces or gestures gave us
what we were trying to express, but the instant it occurred the scene was imprisoned on a sheet of film before
they knew what had happened."
Technically, the documentary photographer is a purist,
but he does not limit himself to any one procedure.
Cameras of all sizes and types have been used to make
photo-documents. Ideally the most suitable camera for the
particular job is chosen, be it a miniature with film
hardly bigger than a postage stamp, or a bulky view
camera taking eight by ten inch cut film. If there is any
camera which may be called universal for normal documentary work, it would be a hand-camera for cut film

HOUSEWORK ON ARTIFICIAL FLOWERS, NEW


YORK 8 P.M.
(1911) BY LEWIS W. HINE. COURTESYOF THE PHOTOGRAPHER

three-and-a-quarterby four-and-a-quarterinches, fitted


with a coupled range-finder for quick, accurate focussing, and with a synchronized speed flash and shutter
control, making exposures possible under any light conditions. Needless to say retouching of any kind is
strictly prohibited. Since the value of a photo-document
lies in the directness of its technique, any intervention
of hand-work is bound to L. injurious. For the same
reason the negatives are printed directly onto a smooth
surface paper to allow full detail to be rendered.
But the documentary approach does not stop with the
print. In discussing the use of the word documentary
to describe a certain class of moving pictures, we noted
the importance which presentation played in the theory.
Presentation is also a vital part of documentary still
photography. The photograph is not valid as a document until it is placed in relationship to the beholder's
experience. It is paradoxical that, although a photograph may be better than a thousand words, the addition
of one or two words makes it even more concrete and
forceful. Thus when Le Secq signed his negative
"Chartres 1852" he immediately gave the photograph an
increased value as a document. Such a simple case has
no bearing on esthetic quality. But more extended
captions enable the beholder to orientate himself, thus
leaving the photographer free to interpret the subject
more imaginatively. A better way to give this orientation is by a series of photographs,which when properly
presented approach the cinema. This is the richest
manner of giving photographs significance, for each picture reinforces the other. It is, I believe, the logical
method of presentation. It is more-it is the logical approach to the medium. One of the striking characteristics of photography is its ease, compared with every

other way of making pictures. Almost universally photographers take many exposures of a given scene, if only
to make assurance doubly sure. The series is usually
produced with no idea of the method of its ultimate
presentation. The prints for publication are chosen by a
second person, are captioned by a third, are laid out by
a fourth.
If, as this article has attempted to show, creative pho,
tography can be produced by following a program of
factual reporting, then the more clearly this program is
conceived, the greater the results. A shooting script is
as important for this type of still photography as for
movie-making, and should be planned by the editor and
by the photographer working together. This does not
mean that every shot need be envisaged on paper, but
it does mean that the photographer should be considered
the creator, not simply of individual pictures, but of a related series. Trimming, quality of reproduction, its
relation to text and other reproductionsin size and spacing-these are all as important as the photographer's
work on the field and in the darkroom. The complete
documentary approach includes these functions. And
I believe that through this approach there can be
achieved publications which, in every sense of the word,
exploit the special medium of photography, and which
will be significant contributions to book-making. In the
German illustrated newspapers between the War and
the Nazi revolution, in the Parisian Vu while edited by
Lucien Vogel, in Photo-History, to a certain degree in
Life and its imitators, occasionally in the tabloids, the
possibilities are being shown. The text-books of the
future will be largely pictorial; already children's books
are assuming that character. Back of them all is the
documentary approach to photography.

Courtesy Signal Corps, U. S. Army


SIX

RUINS OF RICHMOND, VIRGINIA (1865)

MATlTHEWB. BRADY