Documentary photography

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Manuel Rivera-Ortiz: Tobacco Harvest, Valle de Viñales, Cuba 2002

The documentary photography is a way of photographing , their motivation is, a photographic document product that was to be used for the holding of the reality, as a time document, as an appeal or warning. However, these photographic documents do not represent an objective, but a subjective or ideological view, mostly with a socially critical background.

The term "document" comes from the Latin expression documentum = evidencing document.

The term "documentary photography" was coined in the United States in the 1930s in connection with the Great Depression . The value of documentary photography mostly lies in the socially critical inventory that goes beyond the mere reproduction of the real, for example by Robert Frank or Manuel Rivera-Ortiz .

Features of documentary photography

Documentary photograph made in 1914 by the court photographer Julius Goebel with a train leaving the town of Bad Ems with various wagons full of soldiers on the way to war . Behind a cordon, numerous women, children and old men waving goodbye to the soldiers. The original photo print can be found in the Bad Ems City Museum.

Documentary photography means more than just artistic photography a personal commitment of the photographer. He shows what he sees with the camera on site and takes us with him when he's on the road. His focus is preferably on what happens without fuss, has made itself so obviously invisible in everyday events or in ritualized processes that it slips away from perception.

Development and history

Pioneering time

In nineteenth-century society, the nature of the photographic image initially assigned a documentary function. The British Journal of Photography is already calling for a comprehensive archive of photographs to be created and preserved as documents for future generations.

In this context, the first attempts at documentary photography take place in the USA:

A pioneer was Edward S. Curtis, who began his twenty-volume photographic work on the Indian tribes of North America in 1896 , in which around 40,000 negatives were produced by 1930.

Documentary photography emerged as an independent genre

Due to the social effects of the global economic crisis , the American government under President Franklin Roosevelt is forced to undertake comprehensive social reforms, also known as the New Deal . In this context, the government wanted above all to convince the people of America of the necessity of their actions in order to gain support for their policies. In 1935, the Resettlement Administration (later renamed the Farm Security Administration ) commissioned photographers to create a large-scale photographic documentation of rural life in America. They should represent the impoverished rural population dignified and aesthetically, but not artistically. This new type of photography was called “documentary photography” to separate itself from artistic photography. Essential elements of documentary photography are:

  • Pointing out social grievances
  • Aesthetic character that is as real and natural as possible
  • Not the documentation of an event, but the social conditions based on several photographs in a photo series
  • The photo as a message that goes beyond the text
  • Documentary photography mostly with a political background, with the claim to political influence
  • Photography as a public character

In this context, there was an attempt at an official and organized movement of a documentary character for the first time. Significant photographers of that time in the USA include:

In Germany, the documentary photographer August Sander gained importance in the first decades of the 20th century with portraits classified according to occupation.

Documentary photography after 1945

After 1945, documentary photography had a more difficult position. Great post-war documentary photographers, such as W. Eugene Smith , Diane Arbus , Robert Frank , William Klein or Mary Ellen Mark, were either lone fighters or they were forced to serve as story suppliers for the great illustrated Magazine (especially Life) to work. Wedged into the economic logic of increasing circulation, there is less and less space for independent political positions. You see photos by independent documentary photographers more often in museums than in public magazines. This is mainly related to the change in public photography from documentary photography to photojournalism . The pictures always have to be more up-to-date, which makes the time it takes for a series of photos to appear too long. And due to the flood of information, it seems to be more economical to report as many stories as possible than to dedicate several pages to one story and leave out other information. In addition, political institutions in particular have been aware of the effect of the photo as a weapon since the Vietnam War at the latest . This leads to more difficult production conditions, up to and including embedded journalism , in which all photos taken are first filtered by the government.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, there has been a trend reversal. Several museums and scientific institutions are reflecting on the documentary power of photography. In the summer of 2009, the Ludwig Museum in Budapest showed a show of social documentary photography from the late 1920s and 1930s under the title “Things are drawing to a crisis”. Also in 2009, the photographer, critic and curator Jorge Ribalta put together an exhibition on the history of documentary photography in the 20th century at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona under the title “Universal Archive”. In 2010 a major international conference on the history of the social documentary workers' photography movement took place at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.

A younger contemporary documentary photographer is Manuel Rivera-Ortiz , who as an independent photographer documents the living conditions of people in developing countries. Rivera-Ortiz grew up in poor conditions in rural Puerto Rico in the 1970s. Shaped by this experience, Rivera-Ortiz describes his work as A Celebration of Life , in poverty. Rivera-Ortiz has u. a. Photographed Cuba and compared the living conditions he saw there to the Puerto Rico of his childhood. He has also documented the dignity of the Dalit caste ("untouchables") in India, as well as the living conditions of the Aymara in the arid plateau of Bolivia. Rivera-Ortiz has also published works on Kenya, Turkey and Thailand.

Current famous documentary photographers are:

Attention in art

Since the late 1970s, documentary photography has increasingly found a place in art galleries and museums alongside art photography. Luc Delahaye , Manuel Rivera-Ortiz , Marcus Schwier and the members of the VII Photo Agency are among the documentary photographers whose pictures are regularly exhibited in galleries and museums.

See also

Individual evidence

  1. Renate Puvogel : Michael Schmidt - Food. Goethe-Institut , April 2012, accessed on April 18, 2012 .
  2. Rangefinder, The Magazine for Professional Photographers, April 2008, p. 126, English ( online ( memento of the original from August 9, 2010 on WebCite ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link accordingly Instructions and then remove this note .; PDF) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  3. Alejandro Malo: Documentary Art , ZoneZero. Retrieved December 5, 2010. 


  • Michael Leicht: How Katie Tingle refused to pose properly and Walker Evans didn't resent it , Bielefeld 2006.
  • Starl, Timm: Documentary photography , article in: Hubertus Butin (ed.): DuMont's glossary of terms for contemporary art , Cologne 2002, pp. 73–77.
  • Abigail Solomon-Godeau : Who speaks like that? Some questions about documentary photography , in: Herta Wolf (ed.): Discourses of Photography. Photo criticism at the end of the photographic age , Frankfurt am Main 2003, pp. 53–74.

Web links

Commons : Documentary Photography  - collection of images, videos and audio files