Setting the Scene

Documentary photographs are considered to be visual records of events, people, places, and other subjects. Because of the camera's ability to inscribe a visual image of the world before its lens, photography has experienced an ever-evolving relationship with "reality" and its documentation. While the term documentary suggests authenticity and objectivity, photography in this vein is actually a far more complex and subjective medium. A photographer assesses, frames, and presents subjects in a series of choices and controls that reveal his or her personal perspective and artistic intentions. In addition, when photographs are commissioned, the work may also reflect aspects of the sponsoring party's point of view.


An after-school art class
Incorporated color coupler print
© Reagan Louie 1999


Historical Applications

Since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century, photography's use as a visual document has had many applications. In 1855, the Crimean War became the first armed conflict to be photographed. European travel photographers of that time, such as John Thomson and Francis Frith, recorded places exotic to them and their audience, including China and Egypt. In the 1860s America, Mathew Brady and Timothy O'Sullivan photographed Civil War soldiers, battlefields, and casualties. From 1865-1885, the United States government and the railroad companies sponsored expeditions that explored and documented the new frontiers of the American West; such photographers as Timothy O'Sullivan and William Henry Jackson were included. In the 1870s, Eadweard Muybridge studied motion through a series of timed photographs depicting men vaulting over poles and horses galloping on a track.

At the turn of the century, many photographers became interested in recording customs, manners, and society. Some, such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, awakened Americans to the need for social reform in urban slums by showing the deplorable working and living conditions of immigrants and child laborers. These social documentary images fueled the passage of laws that improved the quality of life for the working poor.

In 1931, Harold Edgerton invented a repeatable electronic flash system capable of capturing stop-action images, evolving Muybridge's work and merging photography with science. Later that decade the era of picture magazines emerged with the beginning of Life magazine in 1936, which commissioned photo-essays on many human-interest topics. From 1935 to 1942, The Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.), a branch of the United States Department of Agriculture, hired numerous photographers including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, to record the American experience and the effects of the economic devastation of the Great Depression.

By World War II, the modern print media developed photojournalism as a genre and profession. This term refers to photographs that communicate news and current events in newspapers and magazines.

In 1955, Edward Steichen organized The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This project expressed an ideology of universal experience through images of life in over sixty-eight countries. It was one of the most popular photography exhibitions and books ever presented.

Succeeding generations of photographers independently explored and presented fine art documentary subjects, and often published their work in magazines and books. In 1956, Robert Frank's photographs in The Americans signaled a new documentary approach that affirmed the subjectivity of the photographer. Frank's unglamorous photographs of America presented common, unheroic subjects interpreted through unusual vantage points, jarring light, and differing degrees of focus. These images were thought of as unpatriotic and not received positively or popularly in America, but they introduced a new, modern approach to depicting the world, which was ultimately extremely influential in photography. Later, in 1967, an important exhibition entitled New Documents featured the work of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand, whose photographs of the social landscape of the time also broke with established rules of subject, composition, and technique. In 1968, the first photographs of Earth from the moon were produced, followed by images of Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon in 1969. Also in 1969, Richard Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler coined the term "photo opportunity"-describing situations that would show the President at his best. In 1976, space photography took another giant leap when Viking I relayed the first color images of another planet-Mars-with photography turning science fiction and scientific speculation into fact.

During the last twenty-five years, artists have continued to create photographs with documentary intentions that examine aspects of cultural expression, history, war, politics, landscape, science, and society. Many have also explored subjects such as identity, family, and relationships.


Color processes in photography extend back to the early years of the twentieth century, but were somewhat ignored by documentarians because color had been closely associated with commercial rather than artistic practices. The use of color in documentary work did not come into wide practice until the 1960s, when commercial color film processes were perfected. Photographers who began to incorporate color did so for numerous reasons, including the expressive element it lent to their work. Today, color photography is readily accepted and widely used in all forms of photographic expression, including newspapers.

Indivisible Photographs

While Indivisible represents, in some aspects, a traditional documentary commission with specific intentions and a sponsor, its photographs reflect contemporary trends through their wide variety of artistic interpretations. The scope of images presents a compelling opportunity for students to explore subjects that rarely receive attention in traditional image media formats. They confirm the fact that grass-roots involvement in America impacts the lives of participants in positive and profound ways and that artistic expression enriches and informs our knowledge of the United States, its culture, and its citizens.  
    This page last updated September 24, 2000.

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