Documentary Practice in Photography

The idea that the photograph is an objective document of reality dates back to photography's beginnings in the nineteenth century. Several artists and scientists worked independently in the 1830s in different countries on the concept that light reflected from objects could be captured on sensitized paper or metal plates. They used different chemicals, both positive and negative strategies, and bases of paper or metal plates, but all believed they were capturing a true picture directly from nature. Scholar William Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the negative process in England, titled an edition of his work The Pencil of Nature. William Herschel, the astronomer/chemist who discovered the chemistry to “fix” such images, proposed a general name for these processes—photography—literally, light writing. Photographers and the public believed that the photograph was a faithful document, created directly from nature.

The long exposures needed for early photographic emulsions determined what subjects were suitable-architecture, scenes, portraits of the dead, objects-subjects that stood still. The public was excited to see pictures of exotic foreign lands like Francis Frith's photographs of the pyramids of Egypt or John Thomson's photographs of China and the Far East. Even though most people would never visit such exotic locales, they believed the photographs were true representations, documenting foreign sites.

To own a likeness of their families, the public willingly “stood still for” long studio exposures. Photographers, however, were increasingly aware of problems with showing reality. In 1855, Roger Fenton's most poignant scene from the Crimean War is a desolate scene strewn with cannon balls. Lacking fast shutters and film speeds, they could not capture the awful moments of the war. Alexander Gardner and the esteemed Matthew Brady crew of Civil War photographers shot powerful photographs of the dead, but they also moved objects and bodies to create a more graphic image. When living people were included, they were usually immobile or posed.

Some practitioners photographed with documentary intentions—recording countless aspects of society and the natural world. But, people were beginning to understand that photographs represented a point of view—the photographer's point of view. By the early 1900s, photographers began to explore the documentary image's potential within a broader program of social reform—the photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine were seen as “proof,” revealing deplorable living and working conditions of the urban poor and were instrumental tools in effecting social change. The term documentary photography, however, came more fully into popular use in the 1930s when the U.S. government's Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) employed photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans to document American experience and the effects of the economic devastation of the Great Depression.

During the 1940s and 1950s, photojournalists greatly expanded the boundaries of documentary photography through new mass media publications, including magazines such as Life and Look. W. Eugene Smith created numerous photographic essays that combined image and narrative text for Life and brought documentary photographs to large, popular audiences. Smith was a passionate artist with zeal to portray life as he saw it and to effect change.

During the 1950s, the practice of documentary photography also made its first significant inroad into the world of fine art-celebrated in one of the most popular photography exhibitions of all time—The Family of Man—mounted at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1955. Yet those common assumptions about the documentary photograph would be challenged in the subsequent decades.

The images in Robert Frank's 1958 publication, The Americans, were created in a documentary “style” that fully acknowledged the photographer's subjective take on his subject matter. Frank used unusual vantage points, jarring light, and differing degrees of focus to render unromaticized photographs of an America in a way that challenged the documentary tradition. The idea of the documentary as an approach inseparable from the photographer's particular viewpoint and aesthetic concerns continued to evolve and influenced a new generation of photographers, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand photographed images of the social landscape that embraced artists' notions of subject, composition, and technique.

Color did not come into wide practice in documentary work until the 1960s, when photojournalists began to adopt color photography, which was already commonly used in advertising and popular culture. Photographers who began to incorporate color did so for numerous reasons, including the expressive element it lent to their work.

Lauren Greenfield

Lauren Greenfield's photography is part of this evolving documentary tradition and challenges old assumptions about the photograph as objective document. Greenfield has a deep personal investment in her subject matter, photographing contemporary subjects intimately connected to her life experience. She is best known for her honest and intimate portrayals of Hollywood teens. The seductive beauty of her brilliantly glossy color photography intensifies the drama and emotional depth of her work and draws attention to crucial elements within her candid subject matter.

The Girl Culture project grew out of the work from her first book, Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood, expanding to include women and younger girls from other places. Greenfield engages in long-term projects to take her photojournalistic work to a deeper level. More time allows study and intuition to become part of her process. Girl Culture, for instance, became an examination of how women of all ages deal with stereotypes and identity issues. She saw that the body had become a primary canvas where a girl's self-worth is defined.

Greenfield has been privileged to enter girls' most private rooms. She uses a wide angle zoom lens to capture images in such small spaces as bathrooms, closets, and bedrooms. She uses flash and slow shutter speeds to work naturally in low light situations and to make use of the ambient light. Greenfield often interviews her subjects: “as the photographs are my voice, the interviews give voice to the girls.” The narratives add both intimacy and information as they are presented beside the photographs in exhibitions. She also uses the photographic book to create this integral relationship between image and text that characterize her contemporary documentary style.

The photographs in the Girl Culture exhibition were printed on glossy photographic paper. Greenfield explains: “The content of my photographs often deals with surface and image so the glossy texture is appropriate.” Even the photographer's technical decisions are made to express her viewpoint. For instance, she chooses transparency film for its saturated colors and sharpness.

Photographers whose influence Greenfield cites include Henri Cartier-Bresson, who approached his subjects as a dispassionate observer, poised to capture the precise moment that his image was complete; Robert Frank and his then-unpopular views of America such as tedium, consumerism, political corruption, and moral decay depicted in The Americans; and Garry Winogrand, who felt bound by no mission greater than to see life and record life clearly—to reveal the world, not reform it.


from Lauren Greenfield's Girl Culture: Faculty Guide
Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona