early social documentary photography -- 6/19/20

Today's selection -- from A World History of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum. The emergence of social documentation in early photography:

"Documentary ... refers to a particular style or approach. Although it began to emerge in the late 19th century, the documentary mode was not clearly defined as such until the 1930s, when American photography historian Beaumont Newhall noted that while the social documentary photographer is neither a mere recorder nor an 'artist for arts sake, his reports are often brilliant technically and highly artistic' -- that is, documentary images involve imagination and art in that they imbue fact with feeling. With their focus mainly on people and social conditions, images in the documentary style combine lucid pictorial organization with an often passionate commitment to humanistic values -- to ideals of dignity, the right to decent conditions of living and work, to truthfulness. Lewis Hine, one of the early partisans of social documentation, explained its goals when he declared that light was required to illuminate the dark areas of social existence, but where to shine the light and how to frame the subject in the camera are the creative decisions that have become the measure of the effectiveness of this style to both inform and move the viewer.

Fruit vendor, 1900 Orange County -- an example of early documentary photography

"A crucial aspect of social documentation involves the context in which the work is seen. Almost from the start, photographs meant as part of the campaigns to improve social conditions were presented as groups of images rather than individually. Although they were included at times in displays at international expositions held in Europe and the United States in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, such works were not ordinarily shown in the salons and exhibitions devoted either to artistic images or snapshots. They were not sold individually in the manner of genre, landscape, and architectural scenes. Instead, socially purposive images reached viewers as lantern slides or as illustrations in pamphlets and periodicals, usually accompanied by explanatory lectures and texts. Indeed, the development of social documentary photography is so closely tied to advances in printing technology and the growth of the popular press that the flowering of the movement would be unthinkable without the capability of the halftone process printing plate to transmute silver image into inked print. In this regard, social documentation has much in common with photo-reportage or photojournalism, but while this kind of camera documentation often involved social themes, the images usually were not aimed at social change."


Naomi Rosenblum


A World History of Photography


Abbeville Press


Copyright 1984, 1989, and 1997 by Abbeville Press


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