Research – Documentary Photography


Documentary photography as a form became more apparent in the 1930s. Camera technology had shifted that the 35mm give further options to the photographer in terms of angles with its lighter weight body and the “paradigmatic form of documentary (that) was produced: (was) one which cast its subjects within a ‘social problem’ framework”, (P. 89, Wells, L, (2003) Photography: A Critical Introduction).

William Stott states that documentary photography works as it, “defies comment: it imposes its meaning. It confronts us, the audience, with empirical evidence of such a nature as to render dispute impossible and interpretation superfluous.” (P.14, Stott, W, (1973), Documentary Expression and Thirties America).

Documentary photography has changed since the 1930s and it can at times be difficult to see precisely where landscape photography and documentary photography begin and end and perhaps overlap. Contemporary documentary photography has, sometimes, been empty of human subjects. Donovan Wylie’s The Maze is a documentary series of a prison, after its closure, in Northern Ireland. The work whilst perhaps not definable as about a ‘social problem’ does appear to defy comment and impose meaning. There is a strongly communicated political message.

Nadav Kander’s Dust Series is also empty of human figures, though there are ‘figures’ – representations in non-human form, a statue and a mural detail. The work here is also beyond mere ‘social problem’ and holds a political message that is non-debateable.

Contemporary documentary photography is described by Susan Bright as having, “not lost its power to convey information……it has just moved on. Images are…..using ambiguity as their strength rather than an authorial voice dictating meaning.” (P.159, (2014) Bright, S, Art Photography Now).

Documentary photography can be ‘landscape’, it can be of ‘social problems’ and it can be as expansive as social problems clearly communicated as political or the political shown as a problem of and for society. The contemporary form, which has developed from photographers such as Fay Godwin who’s Forbidden Land evidences a shift in the genre, indicating, “one of the doorways through which photography is enabled to pass from the ordinary to the magical, and is exactly the measure of  Godwin’s attainment.” (Philip Stokes, essay in St James Modern Masterpieces, 1998).

Contemporary documentary is not as Bright posits to be associated with the mere “document”, but is a form of “art photography” where the approach concerns “how the document functions and how people respond to it.” (P.157, Bright, S, (2014) Art Photography Now). It’s a presentation in series akin to an academic essay.


Bright, S, (2014) Art Photography Now, Thames and Hudson Limited, London

Stokes, P, (1998) Essay in St James Modern Masterpieces [ – Last accessed – 20/11/2016]

Stott, W, (1973), Documentary Expression and Thirties America)  Oxford University Press, London

Wells, L, (2003) Photography: A Critical Introduction, Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, London and New York