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The Genre Of Documentary Photography

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1561 words Published: 13th Apr 2017

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In his examination of Lt. Col. Oliver L. North’s portrait, taken by Harry Benson for Life Magazine (1987), Andy Grundberg (1988) emphasizes the importance of the camera position, background elements and attitude of the subject towards a heroic appearance, even though the reality was somewhat different, visible in another, less interesting news photograph of Colonel North facing the full house of Congress. The juxtaposition of the two photographs makes one think of the kind of information photographs leave behind. Is it an actual reflection of the actuality or something more interpretable and selective?

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Putting this into the perspective of the pre-photographic history one could say that photographs are better representations of the historical events than say, paintings or drawings. Nevertheless this is not entirely true because photography can also be biased exactly as a painting using different capturing techniques, angles, and recently computer aided photo manipulation which makes everything so much easier to tamper with.

John Grierson’s which is generally accepted as being the father of the documentary genre characterized it as “the creative treatment of actuality”. The first question that comes to my mind is why did he use the term actuality and not reality?

For this we have to take a look at the definition of actuality. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary “actual” means “existing in fact or reality”. In my opinion “reality” is what you interpret and you think something is, and “actuality” is what it really is by looking at the facts. Reality and actuality are strongly connected and one can say that reality is what you perceive from actuality.

John Tagg (p.172, 1988) argued that “It is not a question of the struggle for truth but, rather, of a struggle around the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays”.

One of the iconic photographs that apply to this statement is Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother and the extensive debates around the truthfulness of the photograph. Is it that important that the photograph was staged, edited and cropped or not? The point is that even though it might be a staged photograph it still conveys the reality of the time. Lange was sent on assignment for the Farms Security Administration to document the poverty of the share-croppers. The story she associated with the image was not entirely true but it efficiently showed the condition of the migrant workers.

It is arguable that the changes made to the original Migrant Mother photograph created the notoriety of the image (i.e. the editing out of the thumb, and the possible staging of the photograph). If we look at some of the other images from the shoot we can see clearly that at least one of the children is smiling. This could lead to the belief that Lange posed the two children with their faces behind her mother to hide their light heartedness.

The final portray and the iconic image of the Migrant Mother is relating to what Grierson refers as “creative treatment of actuality” and nevertheless a reality for everyone who saw the image at the time.

Another very well-known photograph which had a lot of debate whether is true or not, is one made by Duane Michals called “This Photograph is My Proof”. Duane admitted [1] he is gay in many of his interviews, so how can this photograph be true? He realised he is gay before his 20’s and the photograph is taken when he was in his 30’s thus leading us to think the photograph was staged.

Tagg (p.16, 1993) argued that “The camera seems to declare: This really happened. The camera was there. See for yourself. Ask yourself under what conditions would a photograph of the Loch Ness Monster or an Unidentified Flying Object become acceptable as proof of their existence?” It seems that for Tagg the actuality of a photograph can only be proven by other means and not only by the photo on itself.

The general belief is that photography is an objective medium able to portray an objective reality, but if we think about it one photograph is just one point of view. Just by changing the angle in which you take the photograph you can change it’s whole meaning. Edward Weston and Paul Strand were among the ones that strongly believed the mechanical nature of the camera is the most powerful argument for the truthfulness of photographs.

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In the book On photography, Sontag argues that (p176, “To us, the difference between the photographer as an individual eye and the photographer as an objective recorder seems fundamental, the difference often regarded, mistakenly, as separating photography as art from photography as document. But both are logical extensions of what photography means: note-taking on, potentially, everything in the world, from every possible angle.” This approach suggests that every image taken for artistic purposes or for recording purposes has a documentary quality. It means that even though someone took a photograph for aesthetic purposes it’s still a recording, but from another point of view. She further explains that “the two attitudes underlie the presumption that anything in the world is material to the camera”. If we could photograph the same subject from every angle by many different creative eyes we could end up with a series of images that show the actuality.

Martin Parr had a different approach on documentary photography adding humour and irony to almost If not all of his photographs. He has a unique way of telling a story which is often harsh. His creative style is covered in irony, and this generates a very strong statement about society. His approach seems to be very close to actuality even if his unique style is very distinct.

In her book called Documentary Dilemmas, Caroline Anderson (p.1, 1991) talks about Frederick Wiseman and his documentary film Titicut Follies saying that he (i.e. Wiseman) considered his films as “reality fictions”. Anderson (p.1, 1991) argues that Wiseman didn’t want to be responsible for representing social actuality in an objective manner. He used the ambiguous term of “reality fiction” as an excuse to be able to classify his work in both documentary genre and as an artistic creation. Anderson (p.2, 1991) claims that Wiseman used the term of “reality fiction” as a “claim upon film theory” and not to point at the inevitable tension between actuality and film. Nevertheless Titicut Follies is still a documentary film.

Elizabeth Cowie (p.22, 2011) referring to the recording of actuality in both photography and film, claims that two different predilections exist. There is the need for reality as a fact and the ability to review it, and on the other hand there is the need of rational knowledge, conveyed through logical interpretation. This idea reflects upon John Grierson’s “creative treatment of actuality” in a sense that a documentary creation has to represent the actuality but also to help the viewer see the reality which the creator wants to deliver.

Looking at my own photographs for an example of Grierson’s statement I chose a photograph which shows a woman sleeping on the pavement between two bags that read “A bag For Life”. This photograph was taken a few steps from my place and could be a good example of the “creative treatment of actuality”. My intention was to articulate the fact that the woman was homeless but the reality is she can be anyone and anything and she just happened to enjoy the sunshine.

A while ago I was asking myself if documentary photography is the middle ground between art and actuality. I was putting actuality, documentary photography and fine art photography in a hierarchy, fine art photography being on the highest ranks. This is because actuality on its own is not interesting, it does not have that spark of genius documentary photography and it does not have the creative approach of fine art photography.

One of the best examples of how documentary photography shed light on the social injustices around the world is the Magnum Agency. Founded by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier- Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour the agency had, and still has, the purpose of chronicle the world through the distinctive eyes of each member thus creating a complete image of the society.

Documentary photography indeed can be seen as a genre which binds the aspirations of photojournalism with the ones of photographic art, thus becoming a kind of bridge or grey area, if you like. The main characteristic of documentary photography is the appetite for social subjects that go beyond the simple story in the newspaper, becoming increasingly subjective but at the same time holding a grip to actuality and truth. For me creativity represents the fingerprint which the photographer applies to the raw actuality with the purpose of creating his own reality to share with the world.


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