In Defense of Documentary Photography

Friday August 4, 2006

Straight documentary photography is one of those genres in the art world that hasn’t received a lot of respect but hopefully that is changing. When I began photography not that long ago there were still people that said photography isn’t an art either.

Someone asked me … why are you shooting in that style of photography it’s dead? What she meant, I suppose is, since there was already a 100 year or so history of documentary photography then why should anyone bother to photograph what’s already been photographed in a played out dead art form. She also meant anyone can take a photo but only a genius can create things like “conceptual art” or make art based on “post-modern” theories. She said documentary photographs are just commercial art but not a fine art anyway. What she was also telling me is that just taking a straight documentary photo is a useless pursuit because photography has to be weighed down by intellectual gimmicks or it can’t competes with new forms of art … whatever those are. And then the last thing … she told me I was exploiting people with my photos just like those war photographers. She wasn’t a bad person, this is just what she was being told at the expensive art school she was attending and she was simply passing that knowledge on to me.

Two years before she told photography is dead, another person had told me I was wasting my time writing an essay about the virtues of the documentary photography. This person was a teacher my high school who told me photography wasn’t an art form at all but instead simply a craft. I had written a paper on Sebastiao Salgado and some other documentary photographers and how their point of view was showing the world in a way I had not seen it. I was about 17 at the time. Of course, me and another teacher in the high school’s art department thought differently and luckily he had been pushing me to used what I’d learned making news pictures but to find my own way of seeing.

This happened in the early 1990s just after Photoshop had been invented and some art theorist somewhere, I suppose, also decided since photographs could be created in the computer then there was no need for conventional photography in the art world nor was photography saying anything new that hadn’t already been said. I remember looking through the Whitney Biennial catalogue during the 1990s and there wasn’t a straight photograph in the whole exhibition … straight photography had been sent the equivalent of the art world gulag. Now this presented a problem … so everything had been photographed … or had it?

However, after these attacks on the medium I chose to work in as an artist, I sort of set out to prove that documentary photography are definitely an art. I mean I’d seen all those paintings from earlier centuries in which the painter was trying to show some kind of reality in his time. In college I really began to study the history of art to understand why certain artworks are considered masterpieces. But in my own work, I always came back to documentary photography because it is so real … there is no other art form like it for helping us see our world in different ways and also to make us question our assumptions. Besides, reality is something often absent in our celebrity and entertainment driven media in America.

Anyway, this moment things don’t seem much like they do in a Walker Evans photograph. Furthermore, Susan Sontag said when she was dying that perhaps she wasn’t correct about the usefulness of the war photograph. Then, earlier this year I saw a slide show at the 2006 Whitney Biennial featuring a slide show of straight documentary photographs of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Though artistic in their composition, the photos had a certain power only documentary photos can have.

So, is documentary photography an art form? I think so. It’s not easy to do either. Though, there is that argument that any real artist is actually creating something new in a way that hasn’t been thought of before but a documentary photographer is just recording. Maybe, but I don’t necessarily agree. Lots of people can jump too … but how many prima ballerinas are there out in the world today?

Here is a list of some documentary photographers I like. I really like a lot of staged photography (I even have one gallery with a mix of staged and unstaged photographs on this site), but I don’t know why everything in photography has to be manipulated to be considered art … what about the thought process of simply seeing the world in an incredible and/or new way and putting that in an image. Seeing – that’s the hard part … sure anyone can record but how many people can really see in a way others don’t and get that in a photograph.

Here are a few photographers shooting in a documentary style that have incredible gifts of seeing and this is really only a few. Those reading who are photographers probably know these names:

Eugene Richards, Robert Frank, Gilles Peress, Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Josef Koudelka, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Gary Winogrand, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Bruce Davidson, Thomas Dworzak, Larry Towell, Miguel Rio Branco, Larry Clark, Susan Meiselas, Mitch Epstein, Simon Norfolk, Robert Polidori, Richard Misrach , Bill Owens, Nick Waplington …

If you know of other incredible photographers using documentary techniques and not listed above add their names in the comments.