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Narrative, Documentary, and Editorial Photography

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Rochester Institute of Technology

Truth has many viewpoints, all of which depend on the individual photographer. From its inception in 1839, photography itself was heralded as the epitome of realistic representation, in large part because of its unique ability to show things in literal, objective, and commonly understood visual terms. The medium’s unsurpassed power of realistic representation rested on its precision, clarity, sharpness, impartiality, truth to nature, and compelling believability. Photography thus provided evidence of places and events in an accurate and truthful way, the cornerstone of factual documentary reporting.

One of the earliest subjects for photographers—many of whom were wealthy—was they could travel and carry a camera. Thus, much of the earliest photographic representations of what we call narrative, documentary, and editorial work (NDE) was personal work documenting the broader world and fell immediately prey to artistic biases of the photographer. None of this work was, however, a pure photographic document. A person’s viewpoint and feelings always seeped through.

One might define NDE as the outcome of a project that is not bound by time nor driven by publication deadline. NDE is often a time-consuming and expensive undertaking, both in dollars and human spirit. Therefore, it will often create outcomes that are unpredictable. An excellent example may be found in Eugene W. Smith’s photographic essays of Albert Schweitzer, which were months late to his publisher because serious passion overtook deadline.

One outcome of the process of documentary photography is the creation of important visual records that provide tangible evidence of life. The extraordinary visual detail of photography shares compelling impressions of truth, allows viewers to occupy the position of the photographer, serves as an impartial and faithful witness to life’s events, and freezes an instant of time in which places and events may be later studied and restudied.

Examples of early documentary photography include French photographer Maxime du Camp and his 1849–1850 work in the ancient Near East; British photographer Roger Fenton and his popular and publicly sold images of the last phases of the Crimean War in 1855; American Mathew Brady, who organized nearly 20 photographers to produce more than 10,000 negatives of the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865; and photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson, who used the unwieldy wet-plate process to document the unexplored Western territories following the American Civil War.

Narrative, documentary, and editorial photography has had a rich history. In 1868, Thomas Annan published The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow , which documented the squalid conditions and dehumanizing effects of the slums in Glasgow, Scotland. In Street Life in London (1877), John Thomson captured the daily lives of London’s street merchants and working class. American photographer Jacob Riis published books such as The Children of the Poor (1898) and How the Other Half Lives (1890), revealing the sordid living conditions of America’s urban poor. Lewis Hine’s photographs were a powerful pictorial critique of the destitution endured by laboring classes and immigrants in early twentieth-century America. The Farm Security Administration used photography in response to the social and economic devastation wrought by the American Depression in the 1930s. Through New York’s Photo League (1930s to the 1950s), Aaron Siskind created The Harlem Document (1938–1940). Many photographers, such as W. Eugene Smith, David Seymour (“Chim”), and Robert Capa, published in mass-circulation picture magazines such as LIFE and Look , which were the main source of the documentary photography essay until the early 1970s. Werner Bischof, Dan Weiner, André Kertész, Leonard Freed, Donald McCullin, Gordon Parks, Marc Riboud, Ernst Haas, Bruce Davidson, Larry Burrows, Eddie Adams, Eugene Richards, Sebastião Salgado, and Milton Rogovin are only a few of the socially concerned practitioners of photography who are now considered twentieth-century icons.

Human tragedy and suffering has always been a prime subject for NDE. Some of the work of photographer Susan Meiselas focused on Nicaragua, where her political viewpoints were clearly evidenced. She has been working in this area of photography and was awarded a MacArthur fellowship (the “genius” grant) in 1992. Many NDE photographers find themselves taking sides on contentious issues, but that is not a core requirement of NDE. On the contrary, Jeff Wolin’s book Stone Country shares an interesting story of how the stone used in many buildings in New York City was quarried. This book, with text by Scott Sanders, will serve as a historical reference for generations to come and is not plagued by tragedy, pain, and war.

DoubleTake magazine is a contemporary magazine that publishes pictorial essays featuring photographers who look closely at things they find in their worlds. Many of these photographers tackle the personal document: family, loved ones, and parenting, for example. The stories of their features are largely told through portraits. Many magazines also feature works-in-progress from photographers. For 15 years Jeff Mermelstein has photographed daily on the streets of New York where he lives. “I am not one who needs to travel to Afghanistan or Yugoslavia to make pictures, not that I would not want to do that, I just have not gotten bored with my home turf here in the city,” he shares in the winter 1997 issue of DoubleTake .

Styles sometimes are easy to define, but often a photo essay will cross the line from photojournalism into NDE, void of social concerns and tragedy. The objective is to reveal intelligent and sensitive pictures with a capacity to look at the landscape as structure, environment, and a source of human pleasure and poetry. Examples of this can be found in the work of Owen Butler and of Philip Perkus.

Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson are two significant documentary photographers who do not consider themselves photojournalists. They produced two books with essentially the same title: Frank’s The Americans and Bresson’s America in Passing . The text of Frank’s book, The Americans , was written by many authors including Jack Kerouac. This book has been reprinted a number of times over the last 50 years while Bresson’s book was published in the U.S. in 1991. Frank’s book was the first to extensively use photographs as documents that had a political edge and enormous lyrical grasp of the frame. Bresson’s book is a wonderful collection of photographs of America where the genius of composition is apparent.

For 10 years, Magnum photographer Larry Towell worked on the Mennonites book project. Like many projects, this project was developed by the photographer, who later found support for his work after the project was well along. Because of new digital technology, photographers are liberated to work as they want to. This technology has provided independence for photographers and has freed them of the limitations found in the traditional publishing world. A single-edition book is now quite common. Photographers are the complete publisher, organizing Web sites, digital video, DVDs, and other outlets for their work.

The world of documentary photographers is readily visible online. Google the phrase “documentary photography” and a plethora of photographers’ work is a click away, such as those
with the world-famous Magnum organization. Magnum Photos is a diverse photographic cooperative, owned by the photographers who are its members. Started with a powerful individual photographic vision, Magnum photographers have photographed the world, interpreting its peoples, events, issues, and personalities. Magnum has editorial offices located in New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo and provides photographs to the press, publishers, advertising, television, galleries, and museums around the world. Most Magnum photographers characterize themselves as documentary photographers.

Magnum and many other agencies house the work of photographers as well as some special collections by non-members. Magnum has a Web site: www.magnumphotos.com.

It is incredible to observe the number of photographers who have created projects that are a consequence of the upheavals in their countries. As the world changes, the voice of narrative documentary and editorial photography is no longer simply that of the white male voice, but rather is made up of the world’s ethnicity including Abbas, Raymond Depardon, Philip Jones Griffiths, Josef Koudelka, Susan Meiselas, Martin Parr, Gilles Peress, and Eli Reed.

A wonderful new documentary style is now being produced and influenced by the new technology. It is a more conceptual NDE document and is easily found in the book Twenty-Two Seconds in Chennai by Frank Cost. This book captures a 22-second burst of picture-making that resulted in a 75-page-plus soft-cover book available at www.LULU.com. Each frame in this book is literally only what the camera was capable of seeing and not necessarily what the photographer was capable of seeing at the moment.

Easier access to new technology has resulted in a proliferation of book publishing and in the end, created a new voice for this type of work. If the work is invisible, it has no voice.


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